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Couch: The Indianapolis Colts could set COVID example for the rest of sports

Op-ed
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Carson Wentz is feeling the pressure. Coming off a terrible year, he's the new quarterback and hope of the Indianapolis Colts. If that's not enough, Wentz is being bullied into a COVID vaccine he doesn't want. By not getting it, though, he knows he could hurt his team.

"It keeps me up at night," he said.

Wentz's personal struggle led columnist Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star to write that he was known as a selfish player before coming to the Colts and that his anti-vax stance proves it. If the Colts would release Wentz now, Doyel wrote, "I'd help pack his bags. Where does he live? Because he'll need a ride to the airport."

Doyel is bullying Wentz and therefore the Colts. Wentz needed the support of his teammates, and it appears that the quarterback of the defense, linebacker Darius Leonard, stepped up and defended him Thursday. Leonard, who also has been vilified in social media and local media as a me-first anti-vaxxer, talked about his reasons for not getting the shot.

"I'm just a down South guy," he said. "I want to see more. I want to learn more. I want to get more educated about it. Just got to think about it. Don't want to rush into it. I've got to see everything. I'm listening to all the vaccinated guys here. I'm not — you see on social media — I'm not pro-vax. I'm not anti-vax …

"I think once I get a grasp of it — just like the playbook — you've got to get comfortable with something. You can say, 'OK, I'm going to put this in my body.'"

We might be seeing a breakthrough in the debate about the NFL's COVID vaccine crisis, though. And by that, I mean that the Colts might be starting a public debate about it rather than what we've seen so far, which is vaxxers barking at their moon and anti-vaxxers barking at theirs.

We don't recognize actual thinking on this topic, don't grasp nuance or lack of absolute certainty. No one asks the questions. No one offers the answers.

Leonard is an example of what big-name football players should be doing. That might be what's going on with the Colts and could lead to a healthy discussion about the vaccination.

The pressure to be jabbed has created a new minority: Unvaxxed Americans.

They don't have a voice. And the media were supposed to speak for the voiceless. Instead, they are bullying them on a highly personal subject. That's not about agreeing with the unvaxxed, but just recognizing their right to be heard. That's America. It's what has made America the envy of the world.

The Colts have what is believed to be the lowest vaccination rate in the NFL. General manager Chris Ballard told reporters they are at roughly 75%. Meanwhile, NFL protocols — approved by the Players Association — are much more stringent on unvaccinated players than on vaccinated ones. That has turned the Colts' preseason into an absolute mess and threatens to jeopardize a team that figures to contend for the AFC South title.

It's not as if Leonard shed incredible amounts of light into his decision-making process and what he sees as the pros or cons of the jab. What stood out was his willingness to stand up and talk about it at all.

The players' union, the media, and the social media mob have all been on the attack on players who don't want the vaccine. The pressure is working, as most players are getting it anyway.

Those who don't get it, though, are endangering their teams' seasons because they could endure strict penalties and longer time sitting out on the COVID-19 list. That's why coaches and general managers are factoring vaccine status into roster cuts.

If the players believe the protocols are too strict or that the players' union shouldn't have accepted them — or even that people shouldn't vilify players for not wanting the jab — then the star players will have to be the ones to stand up and say so. They are the players at less risk of being cut because they haven't been vaccinated.

"When you don't know about something, you've got to educate yourself more about it and figure out what it is, and you've got to make a decision from there," Leonard said. "You've got to make sure you understand your decision and understand what's going in your body and the long-term effects and stuff like that."

The Colts are on the margins here, with a low vaccine rate, a contending but not dominant team, and a quarterback who still needs to prove he's NFL-capable.

Wentz, the most important player on the team, said this week that his decision on the vaccine is a "fluid situation. I'm weighing every pro and con out there. The media are attacking without listening, barking at the moon."

Selfishness was not the knock on Wentz last year. He couldn't stay healthy in Philadelphia and didn't connect personally with his receivers.

Whispers of selfishness as a player don't match up with someone making health decisions, anyway. There's nothing wrong with being selfish about your personal health. We need to hear more of what Wentz has to say, what he's thinking. That will take guts on his part, though.

The Colts exemplify exactly how the protocols could ruin a season. Offensive tackle Eric Fisher got COVID, and because he had been in contact with All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson, Nelson went on the reserve/COVID-19 list. It is believed that Nelson's contact with Wentz and players Ryan Kelly and Zach Pascal led to those players going on the list and sitting out, too.

You can see how this can spread fast. What if all of that happened the week of a big game? Or going into the playoffs?

The players have to decide whether to take a jab they don't want to put in their bodies or risk hurting their teams and feeling pressure from mob rule. Meanwhile, their own union isn't standing up for them.

Leonard stood up and at least started the discussion. Others need to follow.
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