Aaron Rodgers flaunts the NFL/NFLPA coronavirus protocols and gets a fine that barely shows up in his paycheck.
Antonio Brown and two others do the same and get three-game suspensions.
It's complicated, but in some ways it's also pretty simple why the Packers quarterback was fined $14,650, a sum negotiated between the league and the players' union while developing the COVID-19 protocols. And why Brown, teammate Mike Edwards and former Buccaneers player John Franklin III took a much bigger hit for falsifying vaccination documents.
Rodgers was fined for not wearing a mask in some instances, at a Halloween party and during press conferences. A joint investigation by the NFL and union revealed that he was wearing a mask at other points and complied with the protocols.
Rodgers did mislead the public and the media, but he informed the club — which told the NFL — and his teammates of his status. Indeed, everyone in his ecosystem was aware he was not vaccinated, and he was testing for COVID-19 daily, and social distancing at the team facility. It was those exceptions when he did not do so that led to the fine.
The Packers were nailed for $300,000 for their lack of oversight in the Rodgers case. Whether that indicates complicity by the organization is a matter of debate.
Tampa Bay was not fined, though it loses an important defensive back in Edwards for part of the stretch run, and doesn't have Brown, who has missed the last five games with an ankle injury. He also sat out the Bucs' Week 3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams after testing positive for COVID-19.
The actions of Brown, Edwards and Franklin began during the summer and, according to a person familiar with the case, “were acting like they were vaccinated when they were not.” The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the players' specific violations have not been announced.
“The league wanted to make an example of these three,” the person said, “and wanted to suspend them six to eight games and they settled on three.”
The agreement was the players would take the three-game suspensions for repeated protocol violations, not appeal, and there would be no public statements about the fake vaccination cards.
Another person with direct knowledge of the case told The Associated Press that all three players now are vaccinated.
“These players put all of their people at risk, and themselves and family members, their teammates and team personnel,” the person said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “They were not wearing masks when they (needed to) and were not tested every day, acting as if they were vaccinated.”
All 32 NFL teams were visited during training camp last summer and advised of the updated COVID-19 protocols. As early as July 22 the league made a presentation to the clubs to be on the lookout for fake vaccination cards, and noted to the teams the potential for that to happen based on media reports of people buying fake cards. The NFL even placed within the slide presentation the logo of the FBI, stressing that acquiring and using a fake vaccination card is a law enforcement issue that could lead to jail time.
And the players' association made sure all of its members were aware that they actually falsified a federal document if they had a bogus vaccination document.
However, the protocols do not outline discipline for such a violation. Thus, the negotiations between the league and union that resulted in the three-game dockings.
There has been speculation that Brown's history of misconduct, which includes an eight-game suspension in 2020 for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, resulted in stiffer discipline. Both the league and union have insisted that is not the case.
The Brown/Edwards/Franklin case is the first disciplinary action with suspensions, and was announced through a joint statement by the NFL and NFLPA, reflecting the seriousness both take with the protocols.
Will there be more such scenarios? With about 95% of NFL players vaccinated — and providing valid and verified proof — the numbers say that's not likely. By handing down relatively major penalties for such violations, both the league and union hope a loud message has been sent.
Still, imagine if that message has not been heard or heeded, and one or more star players receive suspensions when playoff time rolls around in six weeks.
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Barry Wilner, The Associated Press