Words are powerful. Even more so when they come from one of the world’s top athletes. Thanks to their extraordinary physical talents that offer them fame and mass followings, professional athletes are afforded a unique platform to share their opinions. When they choose to do so, athletes can use their influence to raise awareness about causes they are passionate about. When athletes speak, people listen. Unfortunately, that is not always a positive thing.
During a Facebook live chat April 19, the number one-ranked men’s tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, shared his controversial views regarding a potential coronavirus vaccine. In response to recent reports suggesting athletes would need to be vaccinated in order to resume traveling to international competitions, Djokovic stated, “Personally, I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.” Djokovic’s comments show just how powerful and, at times, dangerous an athlete’s words can be.
Vaccines are undoubtedly one of the most influential scientific developments in human history. Vaccines have helped to dramatically reduce the spread of diseases such as influenza, chickenpox and measles by exposing people to the disease to create antibodies. When scientists and doctors continually tell us the benefits of getting vaccinated, the case against them has little to no scientific merit. However, the lack of scientific evidence does not mean the anti-vaccine movement does not draw a large following from politicians, celebrities and average Americans alike. Celebrities such as Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and Robert De Niro have all promoted anti-vaccination ideas, such as not requiring children to be vaccinated. Even lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) have helped in movements to block mandatory vaccinations. Many who subscribe to anti-vaccination ideas believe that vaccines may have a role in causing autism or feel they cannot trust those who produce the vaccines. They believe vaccinating a child should be a parent’s choice, rather than a government mandate.
Djokovic later defended his comments, telling The New York Times, “I am no expert, but I want to have an option to choose what’s best for my body.” I’m not asking Djokovic to change his personal beliefs. But as Djokovic himself admitted, he’s no expert on the topic. And when the experts continue to laud the benefits of vaccines, it was irresponsible for Djokovic to publicly share an opinion that runs contrary to scientific evidence.
Just like any athlete, Djokovic has a loyal following. As the highest-ranked player in the world and one of the greatest tennis players ever, Djokovic has 7.3 million Instagram followers and 8.7 million Twitter followers, along with several brand deals and endorsements. Many of these followers are going to cling to whatever their idol says, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Serbian epidemiologist Dr. Predrag Kon put this fear into words, telling The Telegraph, “It’s too late … now, as he’s created misconceptions.” While Djokovic may have been speaking his personal truth, he likely failed to consider the negative consequences his words could have.
Do not take this to mean I want to dissuade athletes from making their voices heard. All celebrities, athletes included, are human just like the rest of us, and they have a right to express themselves. Telling athletes to stick to sports ignores the role they play as important societal figures off the playing field. When players choose to speak up about issues that matter to them, especially as it pertains to social justice, they are often met with backlash to “shut up and dribble,” as Fox News reporter Laura Ingraham told LeBron James in 2018 over his criticism of President Donald Trump. But the media attention constantly directed toward athletes means their words carry much more weight than those of the average person.
The weight of an athlete’s word is not necessarily a bad thing. This unprecedented public health crisis has shown us that athletes can use their platform in an overwhelmingly positive way. On March 26, NBA star Stephen Curry was joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on an Instagram livestream in which they discussed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Curry interviewed Fauci on a number of topics related to COVID-19, giving viewers practical information on what precautions they should be taking, among other things.
Thanks to Curry’s following, the live video drew approximately 50,000 live viewers, and hundreds of thousands more have viewed the interview on YouTube after the fact. Curry doesn’t claim to be an expert on COVID-19, so he brought in someone who is. By giving a medical expert like Fauci a large audience to speak to, Curry played a role in making sure as many people as possible had access to reliable information about coronavirus.
Many people will complain about the fact that we view sports figures as our heroes instead of the doctors and other medical workers who are the real heroes, and this is a fair criticism. Instead of attempting to change that reality, sports stars should use their platform to focus on being part of the solution, rather than further contributing to the problem by spreading misinformation.
Jacob Vanderzwaag is a rising junior in the School of Foreign Service. The Audible appears online every other week.