Why Can’t Anti-Vax Athletes Just Tell the Truth?

Dissecting the many bogus reasons sports stars are sabotaging the fight against COVID-19

August 9, 2021 5:51 am
Despite losing bulk to a bout with COVID-19, Bryson DeChambeau has no plans to get vaccinated any time soon.
Despite losing bulk to a bout with COVID-19, Bryson DeChambeau has no plans to get vaccinated any time soon.
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Bryson DeChambeau got a lot of credit for how he spent his quarantine. The 27-year-old golfer built a gym in his garage and steadily added 20 more pounds of muscle to an already-beefy 6’1″ frame. In the pressers before the 2020 Masters — not long after DeChambeau won the U.S. Open by six strokes — known-yoked-guy Tiger Woods even had this to say about his PGA peer: “What he’s done in the gym has been incredible … to transform his game, and the ability to hit the ball as far as he has, and in as short a span as he has, it’s never been done before.”

All that attention and adulation is well-earned. But it would appear that DeChambeau’s famous shoulders are currently shrinking. By his own estimation, he has lost “eight to 10 pounds” in the past two weeks. His club speed is down. He’s struggling to keep his energy up. And it’s all a direct result of his positive COVID-19 test, which kept him from competing for gold at the Tokyo Games. You’d feel for the guy, only this isn’t a breakthrough case. DeChambeau isn’t vaccinated.

Here’s what he had to say to ESPN on the matter:

“The vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent it from happening … I’m young enough, I’d rather give it [the vaccine] to people who need it. I don’t need it. I’m a healthy, young individual that will continue to work on my health … Now as time goes on, if it [the vaccine] is mainstream, really, really mainstream, then yeah.”

Remember way back at the beginning of COVID, in March of 2020, when a local news correspondent interviewed a sloshed spring breaker on some beach in South Florida? And a kid yelled into the camera, “If I get corona, I get corona”? That’s more or less the TL;DR for DeChambeau’s full interview. At least that guy — however irresponsibly — had no clue how serious this virus was going to be. But DeChambeau, a multimillionaire in the public eye, whose living is predicated on constant international travel, is spouting similar “I’m young, I can handle it” nonsense 18 months later.

And worse than even that, he’s dressing mistruths and misdirections in language intended to suggest that he’s doing at-risk Americans a service. DeChambeau told ESPN that someone like his dad, who is a diabetic, deserves the COVID vaccine before he does. Perhaps a good point — if the month were February. But we’re sitting here in August, back to 100,000 daily cases as the Delta variant spreads throughout the country, where 99% of all COVID deaths are among unvaccinated people, and where American has so many extra vaccines waiting to be administered that some are starting to hit their expiration dates. So, forgive us, Bryce, if we’re starting to feel a bit exhausted by all the bullshit.

sam darnold vaccine
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold apparently needs more time to “evaluate” the vaccine.
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Of course, DeChambeau isn’t the only sports personality living by a different sort of COVID code these days. Anti-vax athletes are everywhere, and despite their penchant for calling the vaccine a “personal decision,” they all sound exactly the same.

Here’s J.D. Martinez, an All-Star slugger for the Boston Red Sox: “Everyone has the right to their body and what they do. It’s a crazy time we’re living in and I think I understand that. It’s one of those things, if you want to do it, do it, and if you don’t, then don’t do it. It’s bigger than the game, you know what I mean? It’s your life. It’s bigger than baseball.”

Here’s Sam Darnold, the new quarterback for the Carolina Panthers: “It’s everyone’s choice whether they want to get vaccinated or not. For me, I’m staying by myself right now. I don’t have a family or anything like that. There’s a ton of different things that go into it. I’m gonna evaluate that on my own and make the best decision that I feel like is the best for myself.”

Here’s Novak Djokovic, the number-one men’s tennis player in the world: “I will keep the decision as to whether I’m going to get vaccinated or not to myself. It’s an intimate decision, and I don’t want to go into this game of pro and against vaccines, which the media is unfortunately creating these days … I’ve always believed in freedom of choice.”

Oh, and for an extra kick in the pants, here’s Anthony Rizzo, a Chicago Cubs legend, already-beloved New York Yankee, and one of the most respected players in Major League Baseball: “This is bigger than baseball. This is a life decision. It weighed hard. It’s a decision I made and I stand with … I think whenever you come out with any decision that’s the big topic, it’s not easy one way or another. This is a big topic … [I’m] taking some more time to see the data in all of it.”

The most dangerous thing about these sound bites? They’re caked in reason. They’re being delivered by men who have been trained by well-compensated handlers to talk in an ambiguous, non-committal brand of pro-sports-guy-ese every single day, who’ve mastered the art of saying something without saying too much. For people at home who are vacillating on vaccination, that makes these points extremely seductive: they’re a permission slip to keep doing you. When the woke, duplicitous, agenda-driven media “vilifies” these athletes for not getting the vaccine, it’s then easy to refer back to any of those words. He was only saying that this is a big decision, a personal decision. Can you not really not respect someone else’s opinion?

Except, these aren’t opinions. They’re deflections. They’re nothings. Darnold doesn’t need more time. Rizzo doesn’t want more data. The majority of anti-vax athletes are just tiptoeing around the point in a half-assed attempt to accommodate their owners, PR teams and sponsorships. For whatever reason — the spread of misinformation online, general distrust of government and/or pharma companies, an aversion to needles (particularly dubious, considering baseball and football’s recent history with performance-enchanting substances) — these pros have not received the vaccine and don’t plan on receiving it any time soon.

jd martinez vaccine
Boston Red Sox designated hitter JD Martinez would not have gotten to play this year if 85% of his teammates hadn’t gotten vaccinated.
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

It would appear, though, that vaccine hesitancy has far less to do with concerns over the arrival of mRNA testing, or the fact that the FDA won’t give its final approval to the Pfizer shot until next month. It’s more of a performative playground for complaints about “civil liberties.” We’ve been through this already with masks. Athletes like Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley, who falls into the aggressively anti-vax camp, have clearly decided this is another chapter in the country’s culture wars: “My problem is everyone is ridiculing and bullying people on here into getting one or thinking the same way about it. It’s becoming that way with any issue. This is not ok.”

But, of course, ridiculing and bullying is exactly what Beasley wants. He can’t explain the science behind why he won’t get vaccinated (going toe to toe with an epidemiologist is a little different than doing so with a defensive back), so he falls back on a familiar playbook: yell louder than everyone else in the room whenever someone tries to hold him accountable. That yelling reached a crescendo after his own general manager, Brandon Beane, told the press that he would release players that refused to get vaccinated if it hindered a return to normalcy. After Beasley — and others throughout the NFL — got upset, Beane gave his take on their response: “Seems like more of an issue of, ‘I don’t want to be told what to do.’”

And that’s pretty much what Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health director and associate professor Joseph G. Allen expressed in a recent opinion column for The Washington Post. “Why are so many people acting like this is some kind of affront to our liberties? It’s routine to get vaccines for all sorts of things. Immunization records are required to go to school, to summer camps and for international travel. We have a silver bullet that can end this crisis. Why are we afraid to pull the trigger?”

In that same essay, Allen actually praised the efforts of the NFL to get players vaccinated. “The [NFL has made] the burden of being unvaccinated so high that people comply,” he wrote. It’s true. Consider: a couple weeks ago, the league released a memo confirming that COVID forfeitures will absolutely be in play this year. “If a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week schedule due to a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will be credited with a loss.” In a way, the rule could even be seen as generous — last year, after the entire quarterback corps of the Denver Broncos came down with COVID-19, a former practice squad wide receiver had to line up behind center.

Point being, the best chance leagues across all pro sports have of getting players to get vaccinated has been the continued implementation of common-sense COVID-era measures. In the NFL, that means limited access to team facilities, “restrictions on the number of people and types of venues players may gather in for social or team-related purposes,” and expectations of appropriate PPE use. If an unvaccinated player fails to meet these measures, he’ll be fined $14,650. Unsurprisingly, the players most likely to view these rules as punitive are the ones who have to abide by them day in and day out. The other day, Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham complained that he “was basically forced into getting the vaccine,” citing new daily testing policies. But that’s a good thing! If that’s what it takes for people to sit down for a combined five minutes of shots, so be it. The country doesn’t need them to believe in it, exactly — we just need this pandemic to end.

But as sports leagues get going again and start to resemble their usual selves, it makes it easier for vaccine-hesitant and downright anti-vax Americans to pretend that the fight is over. The country got through the worst of it, they can tell themselves, and they didn’t have to bend the knee. But remember, these unvaccinated fans are enjoying a privilege that was earned back by vaccinated fans. It’s the same for professional athletes. Vaccinated players are the ones who “unlock” team privileges, like reaching those percentage thresholds that allow spring training or training camp to begin without a hitch. It’s vaccinated players who put fans back in the seats.

It would help if big names were more vocal on this issue, or at the very least, less mysterious about whether they were vaccinated or not. For instance: New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge recently had a bizarre stint on the COVID IL list, which wasn’t reported as a breakthrough test. Upon his return, he wouldn’t confirm that he had ever been vaccinated. New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton maintains that his vaccine decision is “too personal to discuss.” And even Los Angeles Lakers small forward LeBron James, an athlete who has never been shy to voice his opinion on a smorgasbord of social and political issues, chuckled and said, “It’s not a big deal,” after he was asked last May whether he was vaccinated.

Not a big deal? That’s a head-scratcher. James famously spends $1.5 million on his body each year. He’s surrounded by bright, well-connected people in the world of medicine. He should know, one would hope, that there’s a reason the National Institutes of Health has committed $1.15 billion over the next four years to study the effects of “long COVID,” defined as a “constellation of symptoms that patients experience long past the time that they’ve recovered from the initial stages of COVID-19 illness.” Symptoms like “fatigue, shortness of breath, ‘brain fog,’ sleep disorders, fevers, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, and depression.” For now, the NIH says that long COVID lasts for months; but that’s because COVID itself has only been around for months. We truly have no idea, just yet, how long long COVID is capable of hanging around. So why in the world would anyone — especially a professional athlete, especially when the alternative is a reliable vaccine that prevents hospitalizations and deaths — want to test the virus and find out?

Perhaps we should know better by now than to place our trust in athletes. I came of age in the early 2000s, when the three most dominant athletes on earth — Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds — watched their legends crumble after being outed as paragons of deceit. Maybe it’s all too much to ask. The other day, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith called the league a “microcosm of our country.” He meant it as an excuse for why NFL vaccination rates are lagging: They’re not far off from the nation’s as a whole. Why are football players being held to a higher standard? But this is one time where America really does need its athletes to be better — more proactive, more kind, more educated — than its populace. Their platforms are too big. Their influence can save or endanger the lives of thousands.

One of the latest anti-vax sound bites I’ve heard from a professional athlete didn’t come from a big name like DeChambeau. It came from 22-year-old Michael Andrew, who swam in America’s gold medal-winning 4×100 meter medley relay last week. Here’s what he had to say: “Going to the Games not only unvaccinated, but as an American, I’m representing my country in multiple ways and the freedoms we have to make a decision like that.” I’m not sure who Andrew thinks he’s representing. But he can count me out of it. Along with the 615,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19.

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