Here’s a frustrating fact, courtesy of The New York Times: as the main draw of the U.S. Open kicks off at Flushing’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center today, “adults in the stands [are] roughly twice as likely to be vaccinated as the players on court.”
While spectators 12 and older must demonstrate proof of a COVID vaccine in order to attend the tournament, there is no such mandate for the athletes actually competing in it. Neither the ATP nor the WTA requires players to get the shot, and each organization recently estimated that vaccination rates are hovering “around 50%.” Certain high-profile players — like Novak Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Johanna Konta — have even been vocally against the vaccine, contributing to the spread of misinformation surrounding its efficacy.
It’s all of bit of a surprise, considering the international nature of professional tennis. America is the most vaccine-hesitant country in the world; you’d expect a domestic league to have lower rates than professional tennis. But the NHL, NBA and NFL are all currently over 85% vaccinated.
The disparity is mainly because those leagues have centralized superstructures that enforce rules and levy fines, plus players unions to hold athletes’ hands and educate them on the benefits of receiving the shots.
And without even addressing the medical and moral reasons for taking the vaccine, keep in mind that vaccination means an easier day at work for professional athletes. It’s the difference between getting to use the locker room hot tub and having a swab shoved up your nose every morning. Not to mention, for second- or third-string players fighting to make the team, getting caught up in a COVID outbreak all but guarantees they won’t see the field.
That said, it’s tougher for individual sports to institute league-wide vaccination campaigns because their players are essentially independent contractors. (The PGA also has a lower vaccination rate than the aforementioned team leagues, at just over 70%.) When an athlete who only answers to himself, his coach and his family decides he doesn’t want to take the shot, there’s isn’t exactly hell to pay. The most the ATP can do (or is willing to do, as of yet) is release statements like this:
“While we respect everyone’s right to free choice, we also believe that each player has a role to play in helping the wider group achieve a safe level of immunity. Doing so will allow us to ease restrictions on-site for the benefit of everyone on Tour.”
For tennis players who have done their part, the trend is deeply concerning. Speaking ahead of the U.S. Open, Andy Murray said: “A lot of the tour is not vaccinated. I can see it’s going to become an issue over the coming months … Ultimately I guess the reason why all of us are getting vaccinated is to look out for the wider public. We have a responsibility as players that are traveling across the world, yeah, to look out for everyone else as well. I’m happy that I’m vaccinated. I’m hoping that more players choose to have it in the coming months.”
Unfortunately — as we’ve delved into in the past — too many of Murray’s peers don’t view the vaccine as a public service. They see it as a “personal decision.” That phrase has been repeated over and over again by vaccine-hesitant athletes, who claim to be wary of the unknown impacts the COVID vaccine might have on their bodies. Citing their youth and fitness, they seem okay with flirting with the known dangers of COVID instead, which has taken the lives of over 636,000 Americans so far, and manifested long-term health complications for thousands more.
Murray’s point on travel shouldn’t go unnoticed, either. Consider that the entire continent of Australia has been closed for over a year and a half. Virtually the only people who’ve been able to visit the country? Tennis players. Travel is a privilege during a pandemic. So is hitting a ball back and forth (no matter how good you may be at it). Here’s hoping that more stars follow in the footsteps of Murray, in doing the bare minimum of caring for their common man — and their millions of fans.