“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.