On March 11, 2021, MedPage Today reported on the CDC teaming up with the National Football League (NFL) Alumni Association to promote key messaging on the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly the need to get vaccinated, wear masks, and practice social distancing. Organizers hoped to capitalize on the former players’ fame, especially in seeking to reach minority populations. In this report, we follow up on what has happened since this campaign was launched.
With COVID-19 vaccines now readily available throughout the U.S., the campaign has also morphed, narrowing its focus and adding well-known ex-players.
In early August, as the Delta variant was spreading and millions of Americans were refusing to get vaccinated, the CDC and NFL Alumni Association relaunched their campaign.
According to a press release announcing the reboot, the campaign “appeals to those who are hesitant by acknowledging their concerns, dispelling common myths and driving them to resources that can help them make an informed decision.”
With more than 50 former players engaged as ambassadors, the campaign now “aims to build COVID-19 vaccination confidence in metro areas,” according to a slide shared with MedPage Today by campaign director Janet Marchibroda, executive director of NFL Alumni Health.
“The NFL is using its platform to amplify messages promoting COVID-19 vaccination,” the CDC said in November, including “the NFL Alumni Health’s partnership … on a national campaign to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.”
The CDC selected 20 areas in or near NFL markets based on vaccination gaps when the effort was funded in the late spring, Marchibroda said. Players were chosen based on their popularity, community work, and ability as spokesmen. Justin Jefferson, an active star with the Minnesota Vikings, was selected to reach a younger demographic.
TMZ reported in July that the CDC earmarked $3.5 million for the campaign, which Marchibroda confirmed. The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Moving Offline and Adding Stars
After relying solely on social media posts and online videos during the original launch, organizers and volunteers barnstormed and hosted events throughout the fall, including nearly 20 events in 13 cities featuring more than 80 current and former players.
They also have added to their roster of spokesmen, featuring a sampling of the league’s best players from recent memory, including Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Brian Dawkins, who played most of their careers in top-10 markets targeted by the campaign. Former players with high profiles as national TV hosts have also volunteered, including Howie Long, Cris Carter, and Marshall Faulk.
In addition, Anthony Muñoz, one of the league’s few Hispanic stars in its 100-year history, taped a video message. Three-quarters of the 48 videos embedded on a campaign page feature Black players.
At the events, the players have echoed health authorities, including the CDC, urging people to get informed.
At a Richmond, Virginia event held on December 11, former Washington Football Team star Gary Clark and others signed autographs, talked to fans, and posed for pictures, Clark told MedPage Today during a video call.
Many were fans of the Washington team, Clark said — “we were the draw” — and appeared timid when they arrived. They consulted with providers, and talked with the players before getting inoculated. “Their first question was, ‘Are you vaccinated?'” Clark recalled.
Clark was glad to be there, “for supporting, again, getting information so you can be informed to make an informed decision about getting vaccinated — or not getting vaccinated,” he said at the event, according to a local news station.
Meanwhile vaccine coordinator Danny Avula, MD, a Richmond-based pediatrician, told the station that he appreciated the former players crafting “memorable experiences to encourage people to get vaccinated.”
“We’re not trying to tell anybody what to do,” Clark added. “I still feel it’s about getting informed … then make your own decision.”
The NFL Alumni Association has also co-sponsored a few virtual town halls with the CDC, HHS, and FDA, including one with Peter Marks, MD, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. These events were hosted by the Black Coalition Against COVID.
“We hope that the voices of our NFL alumni will inspire people who have not yet been vaccinated — or those who have not yet received a booster shot — to explore their concerns with a health care professional, get the facts, and decide to protect not only themselves but now the younger members of their family as well,” said Beasley Reece, CEO of the association, as noted in a mid-November blog post.
About 350 media items (including social media posts) have cited the campaign thus far, which has drawn over 1,100 people to the events, according to Marchibroda.
While another CDC public health communications campaign involving the NFL about brain injury awareness in sports previously struggled to connect with its audiences, this campaign seems to be different.
After debating whether to get a booster en route to the Richmond event, Clark, who hates getting shots, ultimately decided to get one once he got there.