Fourth and Vaccinated
IN 1993, BASKETBALL STAR CHARLES BARKLEY PROCLAIMED in a national TV ad: “I am not a role model.” Nearly three decades later, sports heroes like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown are saying essentially the same thing, though more covertly, with their COVID-19 vaccination deceptions.
But, like it or not, these high-profile athletes are role models for millions of fans, young and old. And in the polarized environment of today’s debates about how best to address the pandemic, for many people their actions speak louder than words.
As a physician, I know that, two years into this pandemic, vaccines are the best tool we have to prevent widespread and recurrent outbreaks of COVID-19. And the single-best tool we have to convince people that vaccines are not only effective at controlling spread of the disease, but also are safe, is information. Whether it’s a patient in the office or an athlete in the training room, education is paramount, and it is incumbent upon me to make sure they are well informed.
The overwhelming majority of professional athletes have gotten vaccinated. Others have not. I acknowledge that there may be legitimate reasons for someone to refuse the vaccine — a medical condition, perhaps, or a strongly held religious belief. But for many people, none of these justifications pertain. I am proud to say that 100% of the players on the Los Angeles Lakers, for which I am head team physician, are fully vaccinated.
Abundant evidence demonstrates the vaccines prevent severe disease symptoms and limits the spread of COVID to others. When I speak to anyone, athletes included, about the vaccines, I try to impress upon them that by taking the shot, they are protecting not only themselves from severe disease, but also their friends and loved ones who may be at higher risk for severe COVID-related complications. They also are protecting young people — a large percentage of athletes’ worshipful fans — who may not yet have received the vaccine, or who are too young to be eligible, including children under the age of 5. And they are delivering a message that, if not for themselves, then for the common good, they are willing to be vaccinated.
But does their example even make a difference anymore? Before the vaccines became widely available, I thought that athletes would be in the perfect position to use their influence to urge the broader population to get vaccinated. Now, everything around COVID, vaccines included, has become so politically charged that it is difficult to know what messages might break through. It’s not enough anymore for someone with the stature of Elvis Presley to go, as he did in 1956, on The Ed Sullivan Show to receive the polio vaccine to encourage others to follow his example.
Still, doesn’t a professional athlete, who has reached the pinnacle of public acclaim and admiration, have a responsibility to be an example to others, as Elvis was, to do what clearly is in the public interest? Perhaps the public glare is too bright in our internet age — where any comment or action, no matter on which side of the political line it falls, can instantaneously become a lightning rod for criticism and hostility — for star athletes to step forward to take a position that might push against the beliefs of a large percentage of the population, and of their fans.
Or maybe Charles Barkley was right and athletes are not inherently role models. They are what we make them. Role model or not, I do believe that athletes, like every other person in today’s COVID-altered society, have a baseline obligation to be truthful to their fellow citizens about their vaccination status.
I will leave it to others to debate Aaron Rodgers’ and Antonio Brown’s choices to not be vaccinated. There is no debate, however, that by deceiving people about their status — Rodgers misled the public into thinking he was vaccinated, until he tested positive for COVID-19 and the truth came out, and Brown, who was cut from the team in January for an unrelated infraction, was found to have used a fake vaccination card to misrepresent his status — they have done a serious disservice. There are real, potentially life-threatening, consequences to exposing someone who may be at higher risk for severe disease from the virus. Neither Rodgers nor Brown have any way of knowing if they might have exposed someone like that.
Athletes are not absolved of the responsibility to not endanger others. Maybe they are not role models, but they have the same societal obligations as the rest of us.