Move over, New York Jets! There’s a new No. 1 on this year’s “Naughty List” in the sporting world. And the dishonor belongs to a group that’s far more formidable at damaging the sports scene: players whose rise to the top of their game has convinced them that they’ve risen above the facts.
The NFL and NHL have implemented vaccine policies as the pandemic continues, and MLB may do the same. Meanwhile, the NBA hasn’t enacted anything yet, but select cities such as New York have pandemic-era laws that prevent unvaccinated players from performing at indoor arenas. Such policies have spawned a vocal minority of anti-vax players whose often preposterous stances have damaged the legitimacy of the athlete’s voice on socio-political issues.
The perpetrators are well-known. The Brooklyn Nets’ own Kyrie Irving—whose potential return as a part-time player for road games was delayed after he tested positive for Covid—still hasn’t played this season after refusing to get vaccinated, a stand he’s taken for the sake of personal freedom and being a “voice for the voiceless.” His latest position adds to a long list of controversies that include him claiming the Earth might be flat. “I do research on both sides,” he said in 2017, before ultimately apologizing to school teachers who complained that his comments were causing issues in the classroom. But more research is likely needed: During the pandemic, Irving has liked social media posts promoting a conspiracy stating that vaccines are part of a plot by Satan to connect Black people to a master computer. While he’s at it, perhaps Irving should ask himself who the voiceless really are. His newfound supporters in Texas senator Ted Cruz and a team at Fox News? Or the 799,000-and-counting Americans who have lost their lives to this virus?
Then there’s Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose charismatic air of mellow intelligence paired perfectly with stints on Jeopardy! as a contestant and host. But Rodgers’s chill image was shattered in November when he appeared on The Pat McAfee Show to discuss revelations that he misled the public about his vaccination status. Initially revealing allergies to an unspecified component of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and hesitancy toward the Johnson & Johnson option because of rare cases of blood clotting, Rodgers then went on a rant of uninformed chaos. “This idea that it’s the pandemic of the unvaccinated, it’s just a total lie.… If the vaccine is so great, then how come people are still getting COVID, spreading COVID, and unfortunately dying from COVID?” he asked, rhetorically. But his input is misleading; the CDC states that the unvaccinated are 5.8 times more likely to contract COVID and 14 times more likely to die from it, showing both the effectiveness of the jab and the tendency of the inoculated to disproportionately spread the virus. Vaccines aren’t 100% effective, but neither are helmets. Will Rodgers play next Sunday without one?
Rodgers continued by noting that vaccines might have adverse effects on fertility, and admitting that he’d treated a bout with COVID with the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin on the advice of comedian Joe Rogan. (Both have been debunked by the CDC and the FDA.) The quarterback missed one game due to testing positive, but can continue playing with the risk of more fines if he breaks protocol. Among the lengthy list of restrictions, unvaccinated NFL players must socially distance and wear masks at indoor facilities, and have to travel separately from the team. There are other outspoken anti-vax athletes, such as tennis star Novak Djokovic, who has put his status in January’s Australian Open in limbo as he refuses to reveal his vaccination status. But Irving and Rodgers are major celebrities as well as superstar athletes, which is what makes their outrageous—and highly publicized—comments so damaging.
Because if the pandemic ended tomorrow, the actions of this duo would be what’s remembered about the stance athletes took during this historic period. Are embarrassing conspiracy theories and provably false claims really what the athlete’s voice is becoming known for? This is the very same platform that Muhammad Ali used in his principled protest of the Vietnam War, sacrificing three years of his prime after losing his boxing license as a consequence for refusing to be drafted into the army. In that same era, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotted the 1968 Olympics—a decision that would cost the UCLA star his only chance to capture the gold in an age when NBA players could not yet participate. “… the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country,” he wrote in a 2017 book detailing his relationship with coach John Wooden. In 2016, the platform was used by Colin Kaepernick when he knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality—a move that ended his career as an NFL quarterback. What does Rodgers risk in spewing his dangerous falsities? A $14,650 fine for violating the NFL’s mask policy and a local partnership with Prevea Health. While the backlash coming at Rodgers and Irving might mirror those who were vilified after standing up for admirable causes (Ali was referred to as the “black Benedict Arnold”), time will not turn their fiction into fact.
The megaphone of fame is one that entails responsibility, especially in the misinformation era we live in today. While experts have varying opinions on the effectiveness of celebrity vaccine endorsements, even the most minimal of results can be life-saving amid a global pandemic. Just ask those who remember Elvis Presley receiving the polio vaccine on The Ed Sullivan Show, in 1956, which was credited for a massive surge in teenage vaccinations. While they don’t command anything near the star power that Presley did (nobody does, in our age of divided media bubbles), athletes like Irving and Rodgers are looked up to as role models by a similar demographic. Their words carry more weight than most—enough to overshadow genuine acts of social responsibility, like what Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin accomplished by getting his entire football program vaccinated in a state that holds an abysmal 47% inoculation rate. Yes, Kiffin was recognized for his efforts, such as on an interview with MSNBC. But Irving and Rodgers are constantly in the headlines, an especially somber note given that the states they play in (New York and Wisconsin, respectively) are currently feeling the impact of COVID surges.
In 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham unintentionally coined what would become a rallying cry for athlete activists: “Shut up and dribble.” The comments were aimed at Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, after he criticized President Donald Trump; James would later use that phrase as the title of a miniseries he produced that explored activism in the NBA. But in the mess that Irving, Rodgers, and others have created, the scientific community probably now agrees with Ingraham.
One has to think that a socially active sports star like James mobilizing this issue would go a long way toward recovering the reputation lost to the athlete’s voice these past two years. But the King of the Court is not the King of Rock ’n’ Roll: James maintains that he doesn’t consider vaccination to be a social justice issue, despite CDC data showing that minority groups are statistically more likely to succumb to COVID, for multiple reasons.
As James and other stars know, there’s more to players than just the game. But in such a critical time, will they speak up to protect the legacy of their predecessors? Or will they continue to simply shut up and … well, you know the rest. ❖