Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown was suspended for three games by the NFL for misrepresenting his vaccine status.
Jason Behnken/Associated Press
Dec. 3, 2021 10:13 am ET
When Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown was accused by his former chef of procuring a fake Covid-19 vaccine card, it prompted a scramble by the National Football League to answer a seemingly simple question:
Had Brown been vaccinated, as his card said he was, or not?
It took two weeks to find an answer, and the NFL’s investigation determined that Brown—and two other players—had used seemingly genuine vaccination cards with false information on them, a person familiar with the matter said. The NFL said the players were suspended three games apiece for misrepresenting their vaccination status and violating the health protocols established by the league and players union.
The NFL was able to make that determination despite a number of roadblocks that employers across the country face, even as vaccine mandates proliferate. And this high-profile instance of a forged card peels back the curtain on a surprising reality: It’s actually quite difficult in the U.S. to determine whether someone’s paper vaccination record is authentic—even for a mighty power like the NFL.
There are a few ways to tell if it’s probably false, including obvious typos in the official imprints, suggesting the card is a bad copy, or vaccine dates not adding up or handwritten entries that purport to be several weeks apart but clearly came from the same hand, which could mean that an officially produced blank card was diverted and then the forgery was added.
NFL teams had quietly identified players with those types of issues before Brown, according to the person familiar with the investigation.
Yet beyond a glaring inaccuracy, and without any other allegation that it isn’t real, an employer has little choice but to accept a card at face value. Conclusive evidence isn’t readily available.
“For now, a lot of the system runs on trust and hope,” said Noel Brewer, a distinguished professor in public health at the University of North Carolina.
There’s no single database tracking Covid-19 vaccination in the United States, Brewer said. States have a database that is a record of who received Covid-19 vaccine doses in primary care or at a mass vaccination site, and a separate national database tracks doses delivered through chain pharmacies and grocery stores.
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The biggest issue for employers is that they can’t go to any of these databases to double check that a card is real. Vaccine records are generally considered confidential health information that may be requested by individuals—and nobody else.
“We provide proof of immunization to the person the record belongs to. We wouldn’t give the record to an employer,” said Kevin Watler, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, home to the Bucs.
The questions about the legitimacy of Brown’s vaccination card first arose in a Nov. 18 Tampa Bay Times story in which Brown’s former chef accused him of using a fraudulent one. Without that accusation, the NFL would have never found out, the person familiar with the investigation said.
Brown wasn’t the first NFL player whose vaccine card has caused concern this season. The person said there have been several instances in which teams—who are tasked with overseeing their personnel and these issues—had flagged misspellings or the dates of a second shot being off. Those teams handled the problems internally with the player—asking them if they were sure they wanted to submit that card, for example.
There was nothing to indicate to the team or the NFL that Brown’s card was fake. The league even took an extra step and cross-checked the lot number on his card—his card said he had received the one-dose
shot—to ensure it reflected a genuine vaccine lot, with an appropriate expiration date. They found that it was a legitimate dose that should have been administered around when he claimed to receive it.
The person familiar with the investigation said Brown’s card would have never been reviewed without the chef’s public accusation. And the league would never have definitively determined that it was false without a series of interviews, including with the players themselves, the person acknowledged.
The interviews yielded a critical discrepancy: Brown’s card said he was vaccinated in Citrus County, Fla., approximately 90 minutes from the Buccaneers’ facility. That seemed odd, but plausible, to investigators, the person said, with Brown saying he did not want to be recognized. He also told investigators he went to be vaccinated without other teammates joining him.
It turned out when the league searched all the team’s cards that two other teammates had vaccination cards from the same unlikely place on that same day—a revelation that led to the scheme unraveling, and those players being implicated as well.
The league said that the players had accepted the punishment and waived their rights to appeal it. A lawyer for Brown, who has been out with an injury, said the same thing. It wasn’t immediately clear if law enforcement would take an interest in the case.
“The NFL made its determination and, instead of going through the drawn-out and distracting process of challenging the outcome, Mr. Brown wrapped this up promptly and he will use this time as an opportunity to treat his ankle injury,” Sean Burstyn, Brown’s lawyer, said in a statement. “Mr. Brown will be motivated, well rested, and in the best shape of his life when he returns in week 16.”
Burstyn also said that his client is vaccinated, though he did not say when that had taken place.
The NFL hasn’t been a typical workplace for most of the pandemic. It has enacted far stricter requirements for its workers—and deployed significantly more testing—than almost any other employer in the United States.
In practice, privacy lawyers said, enforcing mandates including a federal one for most large employers currently being contested in the courts would likely amount to asking someone to show they have a paper record that says they have been vaccinated, and leaving at that.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence that employers will be required to do a background check on every card they have,” said Tom Zych, co-chair of privacy and cybersecurity practice at Thompson Hine LLP.
Even a sports league doing that for every player across major and minor franchises would be overwhelmed, Zych thought, let alone a bigger employer. But more pressingly, they wouldn’t get very far: “How can they conceivably do a meaningful check?” he asked.
A single vaccination database has long been a touchy political matter.
It’s an unusual situation for employers who typically do have access to databases to verify other information they’re required to seek—such as whether someone has an immigration status that allows them to work in the United States.
The situation is unlikely to change, either. A single vaccination database has long been a touchy political matter, let alone a database that could be accessed by an employer. Six months ago, the White House was insisting that it wasn’t the role of the federal government to hold that information. If someone else chose to take it on, it said, the database would still have to be private and secure.
The NFL has one advantage to fall back on, though, as it says that 94.5% of its players are vaccinated. It can be certain of most of those players’ vaccination status because over 80% of players received their vaccines at team facilities, the person familiar with the investigation said.
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Appeared in the December 4, 2021, print edition as ‘Leagues Face Vaccine Challenges.’