In vaccine battles, pro athletes become proxy players

LOS ANGELES – The pandemic-era saga of tennis star Novak Djokovic in Australia this week is just one of many: Professional athletes who refused to be vaccinated were placed on center court in a contest over broad – as famous faces who become proxy players in the accelerating global cultural battles over COVID jabs.

NBA‘s Kyrie Irving missed the first few months of the Brooklyn Nets season before making a partial return. The NFL’s Aaron Rodgers has gone from revered veteran to polarizing figure. And we’re still not done with the diplomatic deadlock and the fallout over Djokovic’s exemption to play 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 US 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 sport’s “oversized role” in society’s conversations.

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

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 the whole of humanity.”

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

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“We live in a world where we have moved away from a central set of facts,” says Lebowitz. “None of these athletes are insensitive to all the information that comes their way around the world, or insensitive to the divisions we have.”

While the likes of Irving, Rodgers and Djokovic are at the center of the conversation, they may not actually be leading it. COVID vaccines, in their brief existence, have been accelerated into an elite group of divisive political and cultural issues — things people tend to pick sides on and stick with no matter what. come.

Mark Harvey, a professor at the University of Saint Mary in Kansas and author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-based Advocacy,” says these are the topics that famous people may actually have the least opinion on. affecting.

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“The kind of problems they don’t really have influence over are traditional corner problems,” Harvey says. “Celebrities aren’t really going to change their minds about abortion or guns. For most people, that’s part of what a corner issue is.

Known voices then become something else, amplification devices, opinions used more as food for existing arguments than as true agents of influence.

“People who have certain beliefs that they want to enact…they’re going to grab those athletes as spokespersons for their cause,” Lebowitz said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean famous voices have no real effect, though. Harvey says a celebrity’s personal connection to an issue can matter — and can attract attention.

For example: “Today” host Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy in 2000 after her husband died of colon cancer, and the number of such procedures has spiked in the months that followed. And Elton John speaking to LGBTQ communities — especially on LGBTQ issues — might find himself heard more than anyone else.

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By the same logic, dedicated fans of a team like the Green Bay Packers might be more likely to listen to the opinions on vaccination of a legendary local player like Rodgers. And the opinions of black athletes might carry more weight in African-American communities, especially when based on a history of medical abuse.

“They may feel a kind of lack of confidence, with memories of the Tuskegee experiments and forced sterilization for women of color,” Hayashi says. “These identities are not deleted in these situations.”

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

“For Djokovic, the Serbian community with his role in Europe and the way they have been portrayed as villains, he can definitely become a symbol for some by asserting a kind of national pride with the way he carries himself,” Hayashi says. .

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While sport has always been inseparable from politics and public strife, there has been a major shift in the years since Michael Jordan made public neutrality on all non-sporting matters a core part of his brand. Today, there is almost an expectation for 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’re asking them to fix the hate and the pain. And now we expect a groundswell from them on public health.

Those expectations were reinforced by the cultural melting pot of the Trump era, which Harvey said was “defined by championing celebrities” under a president who himself – as a businessman, TV star -reality and general personality – helped build the notion of celebrity voice. in an American bullying pulpit 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. “These days, if you don’t take sides, people don’t think you don’t have a backbone.”

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And while athletes don’t necessarily feel the pressure they might have to constantly think about the kids they’re influencing, the expectation that they’ll remain role models for young people remains embedded in the culture – as it does. since the early years. sports mega-celebrities like Babe Ruth more than a century ago.

“There are a lot of things we see in society, with 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 setting goals, being this shaper of youth and morality,” Hayashi says. “I find this kind of pervert laughable that we turn to these kind of characters for that. You can’t get that by being a disciplined violinist, artist or writer?”


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