A jab in time: Bringing world sport's vaccine naysayers around

  • Tennis world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, NBA's Irving and footballer Granit Xhaka are among those reluctant to take the Covid vaccine, questioning its efficacy or even citing belief.
Bringing world sport's vaccine naysayers around(HT Collage) PREMIUM
Bringing world sport's vaccine naysayers around(HT Collage)
Published on Oct 03, 2021 10:34 PM IST
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ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai

The NBA is dealing with it by refusing pay; the Premier League by a reward system and educational videos for teams; the US Open by disqualification.

We’re talking about elite athletes, some with millions of followers in the social and the real world, refusing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. It may not be a large volume, but significant enough for stakeholders across sport to find different ways to tackle the vaccine hesitancy.

For starters, let’s look at the NBA. The issue has been a raging talking point in the build-up to the season starting this month. Approximately 90% of players in the American basketball league are believed to be vaccinated (it jumps to 99% in the women’s league) but from the small percentage of those who aren’t, there are some big names.

Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards have publicly confirmed their unvaccinated status for reasons ranging from personal to religious beliefs.

LeBron James, one of the most iconic figures in the sport, remained mum on the question for months. He finally spoke earlier this week on getting the jab despite being "very skeptical about it all" before some research changed his mind. James though said it was not in his place to change the mind of other anti-vaxxers. "We're talking about individual bodies. We're not talking about something political or racism or police brutality," he told reporters.

Irving has refused to disclose his vaccination status, but unlike his teammates was made to attend his team’s media day event at Barclays Center in Brooklyn virtually. That’s because two of America’s largest cities, New York and San Francisco, have passed executive orders recently that mandate the players to be vaccinated to enter the indoor arenas to play their home games.

The NBA has said it will not pay the players for the number of games they are forced to miss due to the order, while also rejecting a request from Wiggins for religious exemption from the vaccine. Asked what his beliefs actually were, Wiggins declined to elaborate. "I'm just going to keep fighting for what I believe and for what I believe is right," the Warriors forward added.

Beal tested positive for Covid-19 during the national team’s training camp in July that led to his withdrawal from the USA squad for the Tokyo Olympics, but has questioned the need to get jabbed. “I would like an explanation to people with vaccines, why are they still getting Covid?” Beal said.

A new study released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US found that unvaccinated people “were 4.5 times more likely than the fully vaccinated to get infected, over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die”.

Not enough incentive? There’s more. The NBA has kinder protocols during the season for players who are fully vaccinated: they need not go through daily testing, can sit together in the locker room and, unless they show symptoms, do not need to quarantine when deemed a close contact of a Covid-infected person. No such leeway for the unvaccinated tribe.

A similar rule put in place during the US Open in New York led to the disqualification of veteran tennis pro Gilles Simon. The Frenchman had to exit the Slam because he hadn’t been vaccinated after being deemed a close contact of his Covid-positive coach. A vaccinated player, on the other hand, would not have been withdrawn unless he/she developed symptoms or tested positive.

Yet, the world's top four high-profile male tennis players have either voiced against vaccination or refused to confirm their status. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic caused a stir with his views on vaccines in April last year and has since refused to divulge whether he has taken the jab. Earlier this year, the Serb said he hoped vaccination was not mandated, citing “freedom of choice”. “My issue here with vaccines is if someone is forcing me to put something in my body. That I don’t want. For me that’s unacceptable,” he told New York Times before the US Open.

Daniil Medvedev, the US Open champion, declared he would not get vaccinated due to “medical reasons”, while Alexander Zverev said in April he hadn’t been jabbed, adding “everyone should act as they see fit”. World No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas angered politicians and medical experts back home in Greece with his comments on vaccines last month. “I don’t see any reason for someone of my age to do it,” Tsitsipas, 23, said. “It hasn’t been tested enough and it has side effects.”

Both the ATP, governing body for men’s tennis, and the women’s WTA have brought down vaccination rates for its players to around 50%. That, despite many tournaments on the tour having offered on-site vaccination in several parts of the world.

It could potentially lead to a flashpoint ahead of the Australian Open in January in Melbourne, with Victoria making it mandatory for “professional or high-performance sportsperson” to be fully vaccinated by November end. Its Premier said it was highly unlikely that the state will let anybody who is not double-vaccinated enter. “Protecting others isn’t enough of an incentive apparently, but hopefully the threat of missing a tennis tournament will be…” former world No. 1 Andy Roddick tweeted in response to the development on Friday.

The issue could also be knocking on the doors of football. Qatar has already made vaccinations mandatory for fans attending next year’s FIFA World Cup and is reportedly weighting similar options for players.

A report in The Sun on Saturday stated that at least five players of the England national team set-up, including three who were part of the squad for Euro 2020, are unvaccinated and against taking the jab. Organisers of the Premier League have been compelled to go creative in filtering the vaccine hesitancy among players: from “rewarding” clubs with the most vaccinated players to roping in England's deputy chief medical officer to make videos addressing concerns around vaccination.

According to an email sent by Premier League to clubs last month, “only seven clubs' squads are more than 50% fully vaccinated”. Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Newcastle boss Steve Bruce had revealed that some of their players did not wish to take the vaccine, the latter citing “conspiracy theories” as one of the reasons in August.

A few days ago, as Chelsea's N'Golo Kante tested positive for Covid, Blues manager Thomas Tuchel said he did not know how many of his club players were vaccinated. "We are a reflection of society, the players are adults and they have a free choice," Tuchel added. Last month, after Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was infected with the virus on international duty, the Swiss football federation confirmed he had declined vaccination.

Jose Mourinho, the man who has plenty to say usually, left a few words of advice on Xhaka’s Instagram post: "Get the jab Granit and be safe."

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp equated it to drink-driving; those refusing vaccination being behind the wheel. “We all probably were in a situation where we had a beer or two and thought we still could drive, but (with) the law, we are not allowed to drive, so we don't drive,” Klopp said. “But this law is not there for protecting me… it's for protecting all the other people because I'm drunk, and we accept that as a law.”

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