Athletes and Anti-Vaxx: What’s Going On?
Online Sports Editor Henry Hood delves into the lack of vaccinations in the sporting world.
Sixty-eight percent of the UK have received two doses of the coronavirus vaccine. The same percentage of Premier League footballers have been vaccinated. This does not seem like a discrepancy until you start digging a bit deeper. Gov.uk estimates 7 in 10 young adults have been vaccinated, and given the average age of a Premier League footballer would be around the mid-twenties, they are just below average on vaccination rates.
However, one look abroad, mainly at the American sporting leagues, and it becomes clear how far behind the Premier League is in their vaccination rate. The NBA (basketball) achieved a ninety-five percent vaccination rate in late September this year, while the NFL (American Football) sits at ninety-three percent. In the same sport, the Italian Serie A vaccination rate sits at ninety-eight percent and the German Bundesliga sits at ninety-four percent.
It is important to note too how important it is for athletes to get vaccinated. The constantly updated Premier League Covid-19 statistics show just how many people are involved in close-quarters with footballers; from the tests performed weekly you can deduce there are thousands of staff who are not considered by un-vaccinated footballers.
Perhaps more importantly in sporting terms though is the ‘red tape’ that surrounds unvaccinated players. Footballers who have been double-vaccinated will not need to fully isolate if they come into close contact with a positive case, a rule which caused Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny a headache after he lost numerous unvaccinated players to isolation during the international break. West Bromwich Albion player and Ireland international Callum Robinson in particular came under scrutiny after he admitted in an interview he was unvaccinated but had caught coronavirus twice, forcing him to miss three separate World Cup qualifiers.
So what are their reasons? It seems to be a topic shrouded in mystery and confusion, with theories and bizarre excuses cropping up all over the internet. From what footballers themselves have said and articles online, these seem to be the leading reasons behind un-vaccinated athletes:
My body, my choice
The above sentence was roughly what Callum Robinson affirmed in his interview, as did German international and Bayern Munich star Joshua Kimmich. This argument was covered with some nuance on Irish media outlet RTE’s radio, in which Irish Times columnist Ciaran Murphy noted young athletes are “very, very aware of what goes into their bodies”. The long-term side effects of the vaccine are technically ‘unknown’ and it is possible that some athletes are put off by this unknown ‘threat’ to their career. Their body is what makes them money, and anything that threatens their performance is something to be considered.
Where this argument falls flat though is by realising the scientifically-proven threats of ‘long-covid’ easily outweigh the hearsay of vaccine effects. It is also a slightly pointless stance to take when the large majority of your teammates are vaccinated, given that if you are proven right then there won’t be that many footballers left altogether.
These have cropped up in the NBA, mainly with Golden States Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins who was denied his request to be exempt from vaccinations for ‘religious reasons’. While he has since been vaccinated after being banned from playing in home games due to local coronavirus rules, it caught international attention and is another argument to consider.
According to US law, residents of California have the right to exempt themselves from otherwise mandatory vaccines due to ‘religious reasons’. However, in interviews with Wiggins it seemed he was exercising this rule less out of religious duty but more over worries about the vaccine altogether; ‘religious reasons’ was a loophole. After getting the vaccine, Wiggins made the Marxist argument that ‘anyone who works doesn’t own their body’ and went onto cite a similar argument to the footballers previously mentioned about the potential side effects ‘ten years down the line’.
Similarly, Johnathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic stated in a tweet that “it is your God given right to decide if taking the vaccine is right for you!”
Unlike Wiggins who does not outwardly display his religion, Isaac is very openly religious, talking often on his social media platforms about Bible excerpts and the power of Jesus. This is not a competition about how religious each player is, but it is worthy of noting that Isaac remains unvaccinated.
Law of Averages
Given that the average vaccination rate in the UK is similar to the rate amongst UK footballers, it could just be the case that this is an extension of that statistical distribution. There are endless reasons why one-third of the UK population remain unvaccinated, although medical exemptions should probably be waived in the footballing world considering how physically demanding their job is.
Perhaps it is a lack of education, which could be the case since most footballers won’t have finished their GCSEs. Perhaps it is isolation from the ‘real world’, and that the echo chamber of a footballing circle is incredibly susceptible to the spread of fake news.
There is always an interesting social theory going around about the power of money. Take fines for example. To an average person, a financial fine is an effective deterrent from parking in the wrong place, or breaking public property, or speeding. To a rich person, this is simply how much it costs to get away with whatever they have done. A £60 parking fine to them just means it costs slightly more than normal to park in this space.
The same logic applies with COVID laws. While the NBA and NFL have serious deterrents for unvaccinated players like banning them from training or forcing their team to forfeit if players are isolating, the Premier League don’t have that system.
Most Premier League footballers simply have to take tests over the week and can go on as usual. Vaccine passports do not always apply to those who can afford a private jet, nor do they apply to someone with enough money to buy out the whole nightclub.
So, What Next?
In every other country, leagues are nearing that lauded one-hundred percent vaccination target. For the Premier League they are far, far behind. Promised incentives of removing bans once they reach vaccination milestones are clearly not enough; footballers are seemingly unmotivated to be able to shake hands again before a match.
Some managers have put their foot down. Jurgen Klopp made, as ever, a passionate and well-thought-out argument on anti-vaxxers, comparing their logic of free will with drink drivers. You don’t drink drive so that you can protect others, and the same logic applies with getting vaccinated in the eyes of the Liverpool manager.
Liverpool’s squad is fully vaccinated, as are Wolverhampton Wanderers and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds. Bielsa has a good history of enforcing ‘the right thing’, with him famously forcing Leeds to let the opponent to score after a controversial goal against Aston Villa.
Leeds player Stuart Dallas has also recently revealed his bereavement following the loss of a close friend to COVID which perhaps has contributed to the impressive vaccination rate at the club. Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola tragically lost his own mother to COVID which has undoubtedly influenced the club’s decisions on vaccinations too. Newcastle United’s goalkeeper Karl Darlow was hospitalised recently with COVID, and apparently, his experience motivated members of his squad to take the vaccine.
Although COVID is under control and a ‘too little too late’ situation is highly unlikely, the vaccination programme in English football appears to be motivated more by tragic personal loss instead of scientific evidence at this point. In a world fuelled by sports science and data-driven performance it is bizarre how many footballers and athletes remain unvaccinated. And until the Premier League follows the NBA and NFL in imposing harsher restrictions for unvaccinated players, the risk of infecting a vulnerable person remains.