During his four-plus years as the Bills head coach, Sean McDermott has been a master of evasion in front of a microphone. In that way, he’s like most football coaches. McDermott is generally wary of saying anything remotely controversial to the media.
So it was a little surprising to hear McDermott’s brutally honest comments in Tuesday’s press conference, in which he expressed concern about some of his players’ reluctance to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I’m concerned about it, being very upfront,” he said. “I'm concerned about that as well as a lot of other things right now for our football team. And I think timing is coming into play a little bit right now, where the season is not upon us right now, but it will be at some point.”
McDermott said he had been vaccinated, along with general manager Brandon Beane and the team’s owners. He made a point to “applaud everyone in our building” who had taken action to “improve our situation.”
If the head coach is applauding office personnel for getting vaccinated, you can imagine what he thinks about players who have expressed reservations, as Josh Allen, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis have done.
Rachel Bush, wife of safety Jordan Poyer, has weighed in on Twitter with her objection to the vaccine being “forced” on the public. Bush even suggested that the vaccination issue could threaten to divide the team.
Bush expressed shock that her comments would blow up on Twitter. Gee, the wife of a Bill, making incendiary comments about one of the most important issues facing the country, if not the world? She said she was simply making a stand for personal rights and freedom.
Well, maybe I’m a sucker for science and the government, but I’m sure glad Americans were “forced” into getting kids the polio and smallpox vaccines back in the day, rather than exercise their freedom to resist science.
Back to McDermott. What happened to "trust the process?" What could be more a matter of trusting your leaders than taking the advice of doctors, scientists and the president of the United States?
But it’s clear from the coach’s comments that this could become an issue inside the Bills, who were regarded last season as one of the more responsible NFL teams at the height of the pandemic. It was seen as one of their advantages on the way to the AFC title game.
Now Allen wants more information. Beasley tweeted that if someone is vaccinated and he’s not, then he can’t be a problem. Davis tweeted his exuberant support for Beasley. Tremaine Edmunds joined Allen on Tuesday in refusing to say if he’s been vaccinated.
Naturally, the Twitter horde went wild after reporters had the gall to press the poor players on the vaccination issue. Come on, stick to football, not fake news! Ask Josh about his throwing arm, not whether he’s willing to take a shot of vaccine in it.
Why all this secrecy, anyway? We’re not talking about giving away the playbook to Andy Reid. It shouldn’t take a lot of courage to say whether you’re getting vaccinated. Sure, people will criticize, but be willing to stand behind your beliefs, like Bush.
Yes, it’s a free country. They’re entitled to their own opinions. In today’s culture, they might have their own facts. There’s no lack of sites to find information that suits your own agenda. Much of the skepticism skews to the right, where many pro athletes congregate.
I’m entitled to an opinion, too: Resisting vaccines is dumb. Some 3.5 million people have died from COVID-19, nearly 600,000 in this country. In lesser-developed nations, people are desperate to get the vaccine. But what do I know? I listen to infectious disease experts, like Anthony Fauci and Michael Osterholm. I think Rachel Maddow is smarter than Rachel Bush.
I’ll include LeBron James in this, too. James also wouldn’t say if he’d been vaccinated. The NBA, which didn’t suspend him for violating COVID protocols by attending a tequila promotion, seems to think he has. But James could help the cause by speaking publicly on vaccinations at a time when many in the black community are hesitant about the science.
Bills fans can demonize the media all they like. I think McDermott was happy to field the vaccine questions. He rarely comes to the lectern without an agenda. It was clear that he wanted to send a message to the public, and his team, that what was best for the process was getting everyone vaccinated.
McDermott also had his GM’s back. Beane got in hot water with the NFL recently for suggesting that he would consider cutting a player who hadn’t been vaccinated if it helped the team reach the percentage needed to conduct normal offseason activities.
In the end, it’s about competition, about putting the team in the best position to win. But McDermott looks like the adult in the room in this situation. He came across as a leader for his organization and community, not just his football team.
Interestingly, the NFL announced new protocols the day after McDermott’s comments — after the New York Post called the Bills the “poster child” for vaccine hesitancy. The joint agreement between the NFL and the union creates a strong incentive for players and staff to get the vaccine.
Players who are fully vaccinated won’t have to undergo daily testing, quarantine after exposure or wear masks at team facilities. They will also be able to eat in the cafeteria and use other facilities without limitations.
Allen has a right to his doubts. He says he needs to do more “research.” Perhaps he’s heard about the unvaccinated health worker in Kentucky who got COVID and infected 22 people, two of whom later died. I wonder if he would have a different view of vaccines if he’d caught the virus last season and been forced to miss a critical game, like Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Most Bills fans will throw petals at Allen’s feet and treat him like a God whatever he does. He’s that popular in Buffalo. But he’d be an even bigger hero if he endorsed the vaccine and urged people to do the safe, smart thing and get one for the benefit of everyone.
I imagine that’s what McDermott was saying to his players last week. Come on guys, take one for the team.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.