What could be worse than an anti-vaccine during a pandemic? A star anti-vaccine athlete. This paragon of physical health, clad in a cape of challenge, tells the world by example that after all, you don’t have to follow public health policy – as long as you win.
Which brings us to the world’s highest ranked male tennis player, Novak Djokovic. Sport’s most visible vaccine skeptic, at the start of the pandemic, Djokovic said he “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine,” and expressed curiosity about “how we can enable our metabolism to be in the best shape to defend against imposters like Covid-19. This week, Djokovic obtained a medical exemption from the tournament organizers for a visa to participate in the Australian Open without being vaccinated. ‘flew to Melbourne via Dubai.
Meanwhile, Australia is facing a serious Omicron push. The state of Victoria, where the Open is held, recorded nearly 22,000 new cases Wednesday, when Djokovic arrived. It was the biggest daily jump in the event of a pandemic.
After a 10-hour standoff at the airport, Australian border officials denied Djokovic’s visa. (His lawyers said he tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-December, meeting Australia’s conditions for exemption.)
What is unfolding in Australia is a dramatic example of the disputes we see unfolding around the world, in sport and beyond, as institutions weigh public health guidelines against their own needs. Even as the coronavirus rises again, as does public exhaustion with lockdowns and school closings, sports organizations are being forced to adapt to problematic athlete behaviors. They need their best talents – and the ticket sales, the show audiences, the ad deals, and the attention that celebrities bring.
Questions around the Covid-19 vaccine and its deployment.
The athletes have a more independent agency than ever before, and through social media they have their own huge platforms to express their opinions directly to fans. This has allowed some athletes to become powerful advocates for social justice and others to use their fame to advance more questionable positions. Lately, several have used their platforms to amplify anti-science beliefs with an already suspicious public.
The Djokovic saga exposes an uncomfortable truth for sports institutions: they are only as good as their stars. And the stars call for blows.
This is a problem that has arisen several times in sports lately. Notably, Naomi Osaka challenged the organizers of Roland Garros, refusing to give post-match press conferences to protect her sanity. She paid for her choice, first with the required fines and finally by withdrawing from the tournament altogether, but many praised her for her position. For Osaka, the power of his personal brand has allowed him to preserve his health. For anti-vaccine athletes, however, fame can give them leeway to flout reasonable public health precautions and act as a champion for those who do the same.
“Confronted with this latest wave of viruses, the NBA and the NFL have essentially waved the white flag”, wrote Jamele Hill in The Atlantic last week, ahead of the latest controversy over unvaccinated players, explaining how the leagues give in to fan desires and let unvaccinated players go head-to-head. She continued, “Now the leagues are choosing to give in to the forces of capitalism instead.”
She’s right. In the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets surrendered and allowed seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving to play part-time in away games, the only ones he’s legally allowed to play due to his decision to stay. not vaccinated. (Players in indoor arenas in New York City must be vaccinated.)
In the NFL, Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is also the current league MVP, is vocally anti-vaccine and cleared to play regardless. After testing positive for the virus in November, Rodgers sued the Pat McAfee show to explain his point of view to his audience of 1.6 million.
âI am a firm believer in bodily autonomy and the ability to make choices for your body,â Rodgers said, âof not having to nod to some kind of awakening culture or crazy individuals saying you have to. Something.”
Athletes have been looked down upon by some for these views. During this time, they attracted more attention, won more games. This broadened their platform to promote widely discredited science. Many fans of these athletes came together to express their support for the stars they identify with.
The conversation is as much about equity as it is about public health. Why should a player get a free pass when other players, and the fans who keep them active, must be vaccinated and follow travel restrictions? Workplaces around the world are filled with Djokovics, difficult employees but valued or essential who expect special accommodations to come to work – even when the accommodations they seek are based on anti-scientific opinions that could put their colleagues at risk.
When it comes to athletes, what they do in public health situations is even more important. Beyond the social influence that accompanies their platforms, star athletes are symbols of good health, success and leadership.
And that is why it is disappointing to see sports bodies fail to exercise the only lever of control they retain: whether or not athletes are allowed to compete.
Australian Open was right wanting to save this year’s tournament, amid the gloom of another wave of Covid. He has already lost Roger Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery. Naomi Osaka is planning to perform, but neither Serena nor Venus Williams will attend, for the first time since 1997.
The Australian Border Force did what sports organizations don’t: say no. If athletes don’t like restrictions on the unvaccinated, they might just get vaccinated like millions of other people – a privilege millions more still await.
Now Djokovic has appealed and is being held in a hotel this weekend in Australia. That way, he’s no different from the rest of us: stuck in place, awaiting his fate.