To Mandate or Not To Mandate

Vaccines are cause for a lot of division among leagues; while there are proven health benefits and suggested consistency for leagues, athletes’ freedoms and beliefs must also be taken into consideration upon any mandate proposal.

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By Rachel Chuong

In every field of modern life, there is a lot of conversation about whether or not vaccines should be mandatory, and the sports world is no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a completely unprecedented effect on professional sports for the past 14 months, and the lack of fans, consistency, and healthy players has profoundly affected sports worldwide. Now, with proven and accessible COVID vaccinations, there’s no question that mandatory league-wide vaccination would prove incredibly beneficial to sports in many ways.

Currently, none of the five major sports leagues (the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS) require athletes to be vaccinated to play. Organizations have taken stances though. The NFL recently released a statement that explicitly says that it expects staff members to be vaccinated and limits the access of staff members who don’t comply. Incentives like less frequent testing, training without masks, and traveling with family have been offered for vaccinated individuals. Overall, the current stance from sports associations is: “We support the vaccine, but we aren’t forcing it upon players.”

Clearly, mandatory league vaccination would make for a quicker return to a normal playing schedule and routine. The effects of the pandemic have decimated the amount of sports played––COVID protocols have forced the NBA to lose or postpone 31 games so far this season, and the MLB, NBA, and NHL played shortened seasons in 2020 because of the pandemic. Players who opt against the shot are actively hurting their teams’ abilities to function and perform safely by increasing risk of a schedule change. Therefore, if entire leagues were immune to the virus, seasons could return to something very close to normal. And with time, fans could attend games in person at stadiums and arenas with less risk. Sports fans are sorely missed, so why wait and protract the ultimate goal of a safe return to normalcy?

The inconvenience caused by athletes opting against the shot, however, would only be perpetuated by a vaccine mandate. Mandates change the eligibility factor for participation in seasons, but they have no impact on a specific athletes’ beliefs. The most common reason for vaccine opposition regards the distrust in pharmaceutical corporations and more generally the government, where people tend to gravitate toward the notion that corporations produce ineffective vaccines simply to generate profit. An NBA player agent has stated that “at least half, if not more” of the league’s players are reluctant to take the vaccine, and athletes such as Kent Bazemore and Dwight Howard have expressed their personal hesitation, citing a lack of knowledge and distrust in the system. The common distrust in vaccines is likely caused by the recent road bump for two of the vaccine corporations. AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have already been shut down and questioned because of the blood clots seen as correlated side effects, which is only more damaging to athlete morale regarding the shot. As a result, athletes who are hesitant or strongly against the vaccine could potentially opt out of the remainder of the season, thus leaving certain teams without key players and, in some cases, without stars. Leagues are dominated, especially in the NBA, where superteams are common, by world-class athletes. If they were to drop out of the remainder of the season so as to not infringe on their personal beliefs, the league could lose a substantial amount of their profit from a generally lackluster season to finish off an already financially debilitating one.

Still, while athletes may have their personal opinions on the shot, they must also think about their influence on the general public. To vaccinate a whole league is to vaccinate hundreds of respected role models. This action would be not only a step in the right direction toward more widespread immunization, but also an inspiration for the general population. For an individual who is considering getting vaccinated, seeing the entire NFL get the shot could be nothing but encouraging and a reason to say yes. In general, the more people vaccinated, the better. St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak agrees with this notion, saying, “The more vaccines that go into arms, ultimately, I think, the more freedom or normalcy we’ll be able to experience.” Especially because professional athletes travel a lot and interact with so many people, knowing that safety is less of a concern would promote so much more freedom.

Bear in mind, however, that when athletes chose to play the sport they love, they never explicitly sign up to be social advocates. Charles Barkley went so far as to say in a commercial, “I’m not paid to be a role model [...] Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” Athletes’ social influence shouldn’t be used to pressure citizens into doing something they are hesitant about, especially if they aren’t getting the full knowledge they need regarding the shot. This responsibility should be bestowed upon those with the full knowledge, such as medical professionals and nurses who are much more credible regarding the facts and risks of vaccines than athletes are.

The dominant issue preventing a full mandate is the ethics behind limitations on athletes’ freedom of choice. Players have expressed their belief that each athlete should decide for themselves whether or not to be vaccinated, and many athletes have varying reasons for avoiding the shot. As all people are, athletes are entitled to their opinions, and a mandate would forego the opinions and the predispositions of specific athletes. By mandating a vaccine, leagues would make the false generalization that all athletes are able to take it and limit their freedom of choice, an ethical concern that could warrant substantial backlash from athletes and staff alike.

Many players, however, have been vaccinated or are ready to. Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said, “For me, I see a benefit in it, and I can’t wait to get it.”

On the other hand, an NBA player who chose to remain anonymous claimed that while he was in support of it, getting vaccinated is the “dissenting point of view in the NBA.” It comes down to a matter of unity and compliance, beyond individuality. Leagues now have a choice to make. Are they willing to sacrifice athletes’ personal freedoms at the expense of returning to a state of normalcy?