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Was Vaccination Status a Factor in Release of Patriots QB Cam Newton?

August 31, 2021

Age, skill, contract status, positional depth and performance in a few exhibition games can determine who’s cut and who’s not when NFL teams reduce their rosters each summer to 53 players from 80 as the season approaches.

This year, add another possible factor: COVID vaccination status.

The Patriots released veteran quarterback Cam Newton Tuesday with the likelihood the former NFL MVP was not fully vaccinated after being away from the team for five days because of a violation of the league’s COVID protocols. Newton, who has not disclosed his vaccination status, had traveled to a medical appointment approved by the team and tested negative each day while away. At the time, NFL protocols required testing at least once every 14 days for fully vaccinated players. (Under a new agreement Monday with the NFL Players Association, fully vaccinated players will be tested at least once every seven days.) Players who are not fully vaccinated must be tested by a league-approved lab each day and face travel restrictions, which suggests Newton was not fully vaccinated.

Last month, the league reportedly sent a memo to teams detailing possible forfeits if a game postponed by a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players could not be rescheduled. The NFL now requires testing and mask mandates. It recently fined two Buffalo Bills players, wide receivers Isaiah McKenzie and Cole Beasley, more than $14,000 each for violating mask guidelines. McKenzie later said he had received the first dose of a vaccine. Beasley, who is not vaccinated, has opposed the NFL’s COVID protocols.

The NFL says close to 93 percent of its players, and 99 percent of team and league staff, are vaccinated. The league and the NFL Players Association continue to discuss a vaccine mandate.

But COVID risk in the NFL is not much different than COVID risk for the rest of us.

“The way I stratify it is, outdoors, you’re probably pretty good unless you’re in close proximity at concerts or mosh pits and all those things,” says Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford HealthCare’s System Director of Infection Disease and Chief Epidemiologist. “Indoors, your risk increases greatly regardless of vaccinated, unvaccinated — and there are distinctions between those two — but indoor transmission is a lot higher.”

Neither the Patriots, who apparently will hand the starting quarterback job to rookie Mac Jones, nor Newton mentioned COVID after the move — all teams were required to reduce their roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. The Patriots released Newton despite giving him a $2 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million guaranteed salary for the coming season.