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Communication in sports surrounding COVID-19 vaccines: Tokyo Olympics and the NFL

As vaccination rollouts continue around the world and more people are making the decision on whether or not to get vaccinated, our favourite athletes and teams are no exception. The fight against COVID-19 is not over and both the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and National Football League (NFL) recognize that safety is still a high priority. Communications are once again at the forefront of fighting the battle.  

  • How has the threat of COVID-19 impacted the Olympics so far? How have political leaders balanced this issue so far with their communications?  
  • How has the NFL’s stance on vaccines influenced athletes’ decisions of their vaccine status? 
  • With a handful of athletes that have publicly expressed their vaccine status and created polarization around their decisions, how will this impact their peers and competition?  

Greg Marshall, Account Executive from Grayling NY, takes a look at these discussions surrounding vaccinations ahead of the Tokyo Olympics this week and in the NFL ahead of their 2021 season.  

Vaccinations and rising COVID cases impacting Tokyo Olympic games  

As opening ceremonies draw closer, the precarious balancing act of holding onto the 2020 Olympics amid the rise of COVID-19 cases is difficult. Olympic organizers said on June 8 that they would bar spectators from most events at the Games scheduled to open on July 23, a decision that followed a new state of emergency in Tokyo from a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases. 

According to the Associated Press in May, John Coates, Vice President of the IOC said the games would open even if the city and other parts of Japan were under a state of emergency due to rising COVID-19 cases. As of July 14, IOC President, Thomas Bach told reporters that 85% of athletes and officials who will live in the Olympic village, and all IOC members and staff will be vaccinated or immune. Between 70% and 80% of international media representatives will be vaccinated. 

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga acknowledged the severe challenges the country of Japan faced as the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 had begun to circulate more rapidly, leading many to believe that Japanese government may push back at the IOC. But vocalizing some mixed messaging, Mr. Suga said he was committed to an Olympic Games that would not serve as another victim of the pandemic, but as an example of fortitude in the face of adversity. 

An online petition to cancel the Tokyo Games had collected around 450,000 digital signatures as of mid-July. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, an official partner of the Olympics and one of the largest daily newspapers in Japan, echoed the same position in an editorial. They called out Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, to “objectively assess the situation and decide on the cancellation of the event this summer.” Making matters worse, Bach referred to the Japanese people as “Chinese” during his first public comments after landing in Japan and addressing COVID-19 issues around the Games. 

Swimming star, Mark Andrews, is the biggest name from Team USA to reveal that he has not been vaccinated, saying he didn’t want taking the vaccine to interfere with his training schedule. USA Track & Field (USATF) said on July 6 that it’s athletes do not have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before the Tokyo Olympics but it will be compulsory for all staff members making the trip. 

According to the New York Times, public anxieties amongst health experts have been running high as athletes have begun to pour into Japan from around the world. So far, at least four members of Olympic teams have tested positive for the coronavirus and been quarantined. Organizers insist the Games can be held in a safe bubble with athletes regularly tested, contact traced and socially distanced. By the time the Games start, officials expect more than 80% of athletes to be vaccinated. First lady, Dr. Jill Biden, will be attending the opening ceremonies to support Team USA. France President Emmanuel Macron is also expected to attend. 

NFL players, coaches and front office personnel vaccination debacle 

The discussions around the National Football League and vaccinations for their players continues to be a polarizing discussion topic ahead of their 2021 season. The NFL and NFL Players Association have been clear in their communication that they aren’t forcing their players to get vaccinated and have reiterated players can’t be cut for remaining unvaccinated through the beginning of training camp, but those who refuse to get the shots through the end of the season will have to live and work under strict restrictions and guidelines similar to the 2020 season.  

Despite the NFL strongly encouraging and incentivizing vaccinations, several prominent players throughout the league have expressed scepticism about the vaccine’s safety and have not been vaccinated, which could impact their availability to play and practice this season. 

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold confirmed on June 9 that he has not been vaccinated, stating, “I still gotta think about all those certain things that go into it.” Detroit Lions left tackle Taylor Decker –  who recently signed a four-year, $60 million contract extension – said in April, “I did not get vaccinated, and I’m not going to. I’m just not going to speak to the reasons why. I have my reasons.” Last month, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley stirred up controversy via a series of social media posts questioning the efficacy of vaccines, tweeting, “Do what you think is right personally. Don’t feel like you have to go with the ‘trend.’ Have a mind of your own.” 

Jeff Chadiha, a senior columnist for NFL media, told me, “Most of the league is still learning how to handle their own status on vaccine policies. Most coaches and players aren’t publicly disclosing their stances, but everyone has a opinion. Teams continue to answer internal questions as we approach training camp in a few weeks.”

The news regarding NFL players getting fully vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to improve as the start of training camp approaches. Pro Football Talk noted this past Tuesday that eight teams have now hit the 85% vaccination threshold among players that allows for the loosening of certain coronavirus-related health and safety protocols. But the biggest incentive with NFL COVID-19 protocols entails that vaccinated players will not be subject to quarantine if they come into contact with a person with COVID-19. That means those players would not miss practice time or games, while an unvaccinated player would. For players – especially those battling for roster spots – availability is critical. 

“In terms of competitive advantage, vaccination rates definitely matter,” said Chadiha. “With superstars not being vaccinated, it will have a huge affect – especially on team chemistry. There could be some tensions for athletes that need to be addressed by team personnel moving forward.” 

Communication lessons to learn with vaccinations and event planning 

As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, COVID-19 unequivocally and universally sparked the demand for strategic communications and crisis management. Both the IOC and the NFL can agree that finding the right language to convey their messages is more complex than some realize.   

Communications leaders must build thorough relationships with the public, partners and stakeholders and lean on language to support that process. As we can tell from both the Tokyo Olympics and NFL vaccine protocols, sometimes not everything is accepted and managed properly. Sometimes, there are things that are out of your control that affect your organizational objectives, including confusion and mixed messaging. The money-generating opportunities and brand building around the Olympics and the NFL 2021 regular season continues to be dynamic, especially when fans are involved.   

Traditionally, the role of crisis communicators is to protect the reputation of the organization and maintaining its public image, however in 2021, that’s not all it entails. As we saw with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, his public address on facing adversity and not becoming “another victim of the pandemic” created a strong message and stance of the Olympic Games planning process, however his hidden message that the Japanese government could make adjustments (hinting at the second rescheduling) if the Delta variant spreads rapidly could create public confusion.

It’s a waiting game to see if more communications strategy will be needed as the Games begin and progress week-by-week. For the NFL, there could be some additional communication strategy needed if the Delta variant spreads rapidly in the U.S. and affects our social engagements – so far, we’re still in decent shape. Check out my previous conversation with Jeff Chadiha on the NFL and other sports leagues were handling COVID last summer, which could forecast how they might tackle a Delta variant – if needed. Hopefully not, fingers crossed.  


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