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In vaccination battles, professional athletes become players by proxy

Tennis star Novak Djokovic’s pandemic-era saga in Australia this week is just one of many: Professional athletes who refused to be vaccinated have been placed on center court in a competition larger – as famous faces who become proxy players in accelerating global cultural battles against COVID jabs.

The NBA’s Kyrie Irving missed the Brooklyn Nets’ first months of the season before making a partial comeback. Aaron Rodgers of the NFL has gone from revered veteran to polarizing figure. And we’re still not done with the diplomatic standoff and fallout over Djokovic’s exemption from playing at the Australian Open.

It’s a question of culture, not a question of numbers. The vast majority of players in professional sports organizations are vaccinated – more than the American population as a whole – and either tacitly or explicitly accept evidence of their safety and effectiveness. But the handful of high profile objectors represent a new front in what one expert calls the “oversized role of sport” in society’s conversations.

“We look to sports to give us an answer or clarify issues in the culture at large,” says Robert T. Hayashi, associate professor of American studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, whose specialties include l history of sport. “Often the most detailed conversations we see in culture and media are about sport. “

Their centrality is not necessarily because they are exceptional, but because they serve as avatars for all of us.

“They are all different individuals. They have different approaches, ”says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “Athletes,” he says, “are no different from all of humanity. ”

And in that sense, they are subjected to the same information and disinformation – the same receptivity or stubbornness – as the rest of the population.

“We live in a world where we have strayed very far from a central set of facts,” says Lebowitz. “None of these athletes are impervious to all the information that comes to them from around the world, or impervious to the divisions we have.”

While characters like Irving, Rodgers, and Djokovic are the center of the conversation, they may not actually be leading it. COVID vaccines, in their brief existence, have been accelerated in an elite group of divisive political and cultural issues – things that people tend to take sides and stick with no matter what. .

Mark Harvey, professor at Saint Mary’s University in Kansas and author of Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-based Advocacy, says these are the topics famous people can have the least influence over.

“The kind of issues they don’t really have a say in are the traditional wedge issues,” Harvey says. “Celebrities aren’t really going to change their minds about abortion or guns. a corner problem.

Well-known voices then become something else – amplification devices, opinions used more as fodder for existing arguments than as real agents of influence.

“People who have certain beliefs that they want to advance… they’re going to hold on to these athletes as their spokespersons for their cause,” said Lebowitz.

That doesn’t necessarily mean famous vocals don’t have any real effect, however. Harvey says a celebrity’s personal connection to an issue can matter and can attract attention.

For example: “Today” host Katie Couric had an on-air colonoscopy in 2000 after her husband died of colon cancer, and the number of such procedures has increased dramatically in her life. the months that followed. And Elton John speaking to LGBTQ communities – particularly on LGBTQ issues – might be heard more than anyone else.

Likewise, dedicated fans of a team like the Green Bay Packers might be more likely to listen to the vaccination opinions of a well-known local player like Rodgers. And the opinions of black athletes might carry more weight in African American communities, especially when they exploit a history of medical abuse.

“They may feel a sort of mistrust, with memories of Tuskegee’s experiences and forced sterilization for women of color,” says Hayashi. “These identities are not removed in these situations. ”

Djokovic’s position could also resonate in the Serbian athlete’s home country, given his role in European conflicts of the 20th century.

“For Djokovic, the Serbian community with his role in Europe and the way they have been presented as villains, he can become a symbol for some certainly by asserting a kind of national pride with the way he stands,” said said Hayashi.

While sport has always been inseparable from politics and public conflict, there has been a major change in the terrain in the years since Michael Jordan made public neutrality on all non-sporting matters a vital part of his career. Brand. Today there is almost an expectation of advocacy, especially with the precedent set by Colin Kaepernick’s protests and many athletes joining the Black Lives Matter cause.

“We expect a lot from them,” says Leibowitz. “We ask them to right the hatred and the evil. And now we expect them to have a groundswell in public health.”

These expectations were heightened by the cultural melting pot of the Trump era, which Harvey said was “defined by celebrity advocacy” under a president who himself – as a businessman, TV star – reality and high profile person in general – helped to build the notion of celebrity voice. in an American bullying chair in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

“I think the moral of the story that celebrities learn is where you kind of have to take sides,” Harvey says. “Today, if you don’t take sides, people don’t think you don’t have a backbone.”

And while athletes don’t necessarily feel the pressure they once might have to constantly think about the children they influence, the expectation that they remain role models for young people remains embedded in the culture – as is the case. case since the early years of sports mega-celebrities like Babe Ruth over a century ago.

“There is a lot that we see in society, sport being the crucible for shaping youth and certain ideas that we value, sacrifice and effort and goal orientation, learning to work hard and to to set goals, to be that shaper of youth and morality, “says Hayashi. “I find that kind of perversely laughable that we look to those kind of numbers for that. Can’t you get that by being a disciplined violinist, artist, or writer?”


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