ANDREW DALTON / AP Entertainment writer
Tennis star Novak Djokovic’s pandemic saga in Australia this week is just one of many: pro athletes who have refused to get vaccinated have been put on center court in bigger competition – as famous faces who accelerate too Global culture battles over COVID vaccinations are becoming proxies.
The NBA’s Kyrie Irving missed the first few months of the Brooklyn Nets’ season before making a partial return. The NFL’s Aaron Rodgers went from being a revered veteran to a polarizing figure. And we’re still not done with the diplomatic standoff and fallout over Djokovic’s exemption from Australian Open participation.
It’s a culture issue, not a number issue. The vast majority of players in professional sports organizations are vaccinated – more than the US population as a whole – and accept, tacitly or explicitly, evidence of their safety and efficacy. But the handful of high-profile opponents represent a new front in what one expert has dubbed sport’s “outsized role” in society’s talk.
“We look to sports to give us an answer or to clarify problems in the larger culture,” says Robert T. Hayashi, associate professor of American Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, whose specialty is the history of sports. “Often the most in-depth conversations we see in culture and media revolve around sports.”
Their central importance is not necessarily because they are extraordinary, but because they serve as avatars for all of us.
“These 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 actually nothing more than all of humanity.”
And in that sense, they are subject to the same information and misinformation – the same susceptibility or stubbornness – as the rest of the population.
“We live in a world in which we have strayed very far from central facts,” says Lebowitz. “None of these athletes are insensitive to all the information that’s coming at them from around the world, or insensitive to the divisions that we have.”
While figures like Irving, Rodgers and Djokovic are the focus of the conversation, they may not really be driving it. COVID vaccines have quickly become an elite group of divisive political and cultural issues in their short existence – things on which people tend to choose sides and stick with them no matter what.
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 issues on which celebrities actually have the least influence.
“The kind of issues where they’re not really influential are the traditional wedge issues,” says Harvey. “Celebrities aren’t really going to change anyone’s mind about abortion or guns. For most people, this has become part of what has become a wedge problem.”
Familiar voices then become something else—reinforcement tools, opinions that serve as fodder for existing arguments rather than actual influencers.
“People who have certain beliefs that they want to push forward… they’re going to enlist these athletes as spokespeople for their cause,” Lebowitz says.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that famous voices have no real impact. Harvey says a celebrity’s personal connection to an issue can be important — and draw attention.
For example: Today presenter Katie Couric had a colonoscopy aired in 2000 after her husband died of colon cancer, and the number of such procedures has skyrocketed in the months that followed. And Elton John, who speaks to LGBTQ communities — particularly on LGBTQ issues — might find he gets heard more than anyone else.
By the same logic, devoted fans of a team like the Green Bay Packers may be more likely to listen to vaccination opinions from a famous local player like Rodgers. And black athletes’ opinions may have more resonate with African-American communities, especially if they draw on a history of medical abuse.
“You can feel a kind of loss of confidence, with memories of the Tuskegee experiments and the forced sterilization of women of color,” says Hayashi. “These identities are not stripped away in these situations.”
Djokovic’s stance may have similar appeal in the Serbian athlete’s home country, given his role in 20th-century European conflicts.
“For Djokovic, the Serbian community with their role in Europe and how they have been portrayed as villains, he can certainly become a symbol for some, expressing a kind of national pride with his way of asserting himself,” says Hayashi .
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 in all non-sporting matters an integral part of his brand. Today it’s almost expected to be championed, especially given the precedent Colin Kaepernick’s protests have set and the support of many athletes for the Black Lives Matter cause.
“We expect a lot of them,” says Lebowitz. “We ask them to fix hate and pain. And now we look to them for a public health boost.”
Those expectations were reinforced by the cultural melting pot of the Trump era, which, according to Harvey, under a president who himself — as a businessman, reality TV star, and general high-profile person — helped build the notion of the celebrity voice, “through defining celebrity advocacy” was made into an American thug 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,” says Harvey. “Nowadays, if you don’t take sides, people don’t think you have no backbone.”
And while athletes don’t necessarily feel the pressure to constantly think about the children they influence, the expectation that they remain role models for youth remains ingrained in the culture — as has sports mega-celebrities like Babe Ruth since the earliest years more than a century ago.
“There are many things that we see in society, sport is the melting pot for the shapers of youth and certain ideas that we value, sacrifice and effort and goal orientation, learn how to work hard and set goals, these shapers of youth and to be moral,” says Hayashi. “I find it perversely ridiculous that we are turning to numbers like this. You can’t achieve that as a disciplined violinist, artist or writer?”