INDIANAPOLIS — PJ Mustipher, a defensive tackle for Penn State, peered around Lucas Oil Stadium this summer and let himself imagine the Nittany Lions returning in December to play for a Big Ten title.
But the senior knew that a chance at glory could hinge on his team’s coronavirus vaccination rate, arguably the most important statistic in college football these days.
“What if we’re here — not what if, when we’re here — what happens if someone gets Covid?” said Mustipher, whose 19th-ranked team will open its season at No. 12 Wisconsin on Saturday. “We’ve got to leave the Big Ten championship. I don’t want that to happen to us.”
The mercies of the 2020 season, including rescheduled games and no-contests connected to the pandemic, have all but vanished for 2021 so the games go on and the money keeps flowing. Now there are largely unforgiving policies intended to keep players and coaches safe and furious efforts inside locker rooms to persuade young men to be inoculated so they can more likely stay on the field.
The results have often been robust, with many teams vaccinated at higher rates than their surrounding communities. Arizona, Boston College and Mississippi have reported 100 percent vaccination rates among football players; at least half of the teams ranked in the top 10 of The Associated Press preseason poll have said that 90 percent or more of their players are inoculated.
And in a stark departure from last year, when many athletic programs tried to keep their virus case counts out of public view, schools are sometimes celebrating their vaccination rates to the envy of their rivals.
“Football is competitive, coaching is competitive, the SEC is as competitive as you get, including in pro sports,” said Lane Kiffin, the coach at Mississippi, where about 47 percent of adults statewide are fully vaccinated. “This is probably the first thing where it was like, ‘OK, hey, we did this,’ and people are calling us for advice — other coaches, other trainers — and we’re openly sharing that.”
Universitywide vaccination mandates have eased the strain for some football programs, even though they have stirred some players to threaten to leave their schools entirely. But on many campuses, coaches, players, trainers and team doctors have taken the lead in prodding athletes to receive shots.
It has been a monthslong high-wire act, complicated by rampant misinformation about vaccines and worries about potential overreach by schools that already have enormous influence over athletes’ lives. Some coaches feared that their efforts would be seen as too self-serving.
“We tried here to take the lead from a sports medicine standpoint and really make it about health and safety,” said Ron Courson, Georgia’s executive associate athletic director for sports medicine. “You do have some concerns that if it’s coming from other people it could be construed as hazing or bullying, and we really wanted to stay away from that.”
But at Georgia, as at many other schools, coaches and players still had roles. The run game coordinator told the players about his own experience with the virus. Some star Bulldogs received five hours of training, part of a university program conceived by an associate professor of religion, about how to talk to their peers about vaccines. Television screens around athletic facilities sometimes showed headlines about the virus surfacing throughout the sports world, and a recurring graphic showed the team’s progress toward an 85 percent vaccination threshold. The school also held a virtual town hall meeting with outside doctors for players and their parents, and arranged for them to speak privately with experts.
“What we found out early on was that everybody has different concerns and if we could find out and identify the concern they have, that’s the best way to approach it,” Courson, who recently tested positive for the virus in a breakthrough case, said in an interview last month. “It sort of goes back to our philosophy: People want to know how much you care before they care how much you know.”
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin’s coach, said he had a similar strategy for his program, which had three games canceled in 2020 because of the virus.
“You should try to work with guys and talk to them,” he said. “Certainly, we have something now available to us that we didn’t last year, and we know last year the challenges that were presented and you learn from that, too.”
Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, Graham Mertz, said he had taken the vaccine “because I knew the benefits for us as a team.” But he said he had avoided putting pressure on other Badgers.
“If a guy doesn’t want to get it, I’m not going to jump him for it,” he said.
Even the softest campaigns have encountered resistance, some of it sustained. Players have questioned whether they, as young and healthy people, need any help fighting off the virus, and whether a new vaccine would risk a body that could earn them millions of dollars. Others have taken their cues from their unvaccinated parents or online commentary. Oftentimes, some coaches said ruefully, ordinary collegiate laziness is to blame.
“People just don’t go because it’s easier not to; it’s easier not to go down to the drugstore and do it,” Kiffin said. He added that medical staff members and coaches, who often know players intimately from recruiting, had actively spoken with holdouts, prying for details about the reasons for their reluctance. Interest soared in the weeks before the season’s scheduled start, he said, much like how a student might treat the urgency of a term paper.
Some coaches have tried to help players’ parents navigate an uncertain era. Jedd Fisch, the new coach at Arizona, said he had used video calls to make a blunt case to parents: “I don’t want to have to call you to tell you your son’s in the hospital.”
Although many teams say they have largely focused their arguments on the medical and societal benefits of vaccines, players have nudged teammates by appealing to their competitiveness. And coaches and medical personnel have explained the aggravations, like masks and testing, that will come with remaining unprotected during the season.
“They have to decide for themselves if it’s the right decision,” said P.J. Fleck, the coach at Minnesota, where more than 30 Gophers missed last season’s Nebraska game because of a viral outbreak. “But there’s times that you don’t have the choice of the consequence, and you have to know the consequence based on your decision.”
Beyond any individual inconveniences, the country’s top college football conferences are showing little patience for outbreaks and have warned that teams could forfeit games if they cannot field enough players. But even if a team can muster enough of its roster, unvaccinated players could be left behind for weeks if they are swept into contact tracing. Missed games, some coaches have cautioned, may well dampen a player’s professional prospects.
One week after the next, vaccination rates edged up, one player at a time.
In Tucson, Ariz., Fisch seemed to use every meeting to remind the Wildcats where their numbers stood.
“We wanted to make it something we could win,” he said. “We want to count wins.”
At last, not long ago, the final person who had not received the shot texted Fisch a picture of a vaccination card. By his count, the coach said, Arizona was 1-0, even before Saturday’s opener against Brigham Young.
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