On a recent sports talk radio interview, the host asked me why a professional athlete would not get the COVID-19 vaccine when he or she stands to lose large amounts of money, as in the case of pro golfer Jon Rahm. As an economics major in college and someone very interested in behavioral economics today, I am fascinated by the idea of using incentives to change people’s behavior. Regardless of what you think about the vaccine and its health risks and benefits, the financial implications for a pro athlete intrigue me. I wrote about it for my latest newspaper column.

Golfer Jon Rahm loses over $1.6 million by not getting the COVID-19 vaccine

$1,674,000. That’s the amount of money Jon Rahm lost by testing positive for COVID-19, after leading The Memorial Tournament by six strokes after three rounds. Despite those 1.6 million reasons professional golfers have to get the COVID-19 vaccine, a PGA Tour spokesman recently said barely half of Tour players are fully vaccinated.

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Many NFL players are hesitant to get the vaccine

As we head into summer, attention turns to our country’s biggest and most popular sport – the NFL. We don’t know exactly how many players have been vaccinated. But we are starting to see evidence that pro golfers aren’t the only ones willing to risk their money and health by not getting the vaccine.

Last week, Montez Sweat of the Washington Football Team raised eyebrows when he said he wouldn’t get it, even after head coach Ron Rivera brought in a leading immunologist who helped develop the Moderna vaccine. “I haven’t caught COVID yet so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID,” the defensive end reasoned.

Vaccines work to prevent illness, not treat it once you become sick. Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas Morning News compared Sweat’s comment to saying you “don’t wear a seat belt because you haven’t been in a wreck yet.”

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold hasn’t received the vaccine, explaining that it’s every player’s choice. The NFL Players Association has consistently encouraged players to get vaccinated, stressing they should talk to their doctors to make an informed decision.

The push by NFL teams to get players vaccinated

NFL teams clearly want to get as many players vaccinated as possible. A team with over 85 percent of its players vaccinated can essentially operate like normal in their upcoming training camps, while a team that doesn’t still faces restrictions on meetings, masks, weightlifting sessions and more. A team with a more normal camp might fare better in early regular season games, which could affect its playoff chances and seeding later in the year.

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Incentives for players to get the COVID-19 vaccine

There are strong incentives for the players to get the vaccine as well. The NFL recently announced changes to its COVID-19 protocols for vaccinated players. Vaccinated players no longer have to undergo daily testing, wear masks, or abide by limits in the weight room. They can eat with others in the cafeteria, meet with friends and family while traveling with the team, use the sauna and steam room, and do team marketing promotions.

The risk of missing practices and games for unvaccinated players

On top of all those incentives for players to get vaccinated, the biggest would seem to be avoiding the risk of exposure or a positive test. Unvaccinated players must still quarantine if they are exposed to someone with COVID-19, causing them to miss practices and games. For so many NFL players fighting to make the final rosters, not being able to play could be an insurmountable setback.

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Should unvaccinated players lose salary if they are exposed or test positive?

The idea of players having to quarantine if they test positive for the virus or are exposed to someone with the virus has led many to argue that players shouldn’t be paid for their time away from the team, much like the prize money Rahm lost. Sure, the choice to get or not get the vaccine is an individual one, the argument goes, but the team suffers from the player not being able to play. Why should that team have to pay a player his salary those weeks, and possibly part of his bonus, when he could have very likely avoided the situation by getting vaccinated?

In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that employers can mandate vaccinations for employees. Whether such a mandate could extend to unionized employees remains to be seen. Without a doubt, the NFL and the NFLPA would have to negotiate the issue, and it would almost certainly generate opposition from players.

Reasons many athletes – and adults generally –are wary of the vaccine

Multiple surveys have shown a decent percentage of Americans are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, many of whom are adamantly opposed. Concerns over side effects, effectiveness, the quick development of the vaccines and more have made many people hesitant, including pro athletes. Throw on top on those reasons the increasing worry many pro athletes have that their teams don’t always prioritize their health over the team’s success.

Studies have clearly shown how effective the vaccines are at preventing hospitalization and death from this coronavirus. If protecting their health isn’t enough to convince pro athletes to get the vaccine, will protecting their wallets do it?

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the June 12, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.