The thought of young, strapping, and sometimes enormously wealthy athletes cutting the line to receive a COVID-19 vaccination shot is enough to raise a storm of objections.
The NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB have said they do not want their players and staff to be shown favoritism. However, there’s enough data and research to explain why the NBA and NFL are in the early stages of talks with public health officials on a plan to justify getting at least some players vaccinated sooner than later.
Hesitation toward vaccines and mistrust of the medical establishment among Black people are as real as the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 virus has had on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in Black communities.
Using athletes, especially the most well-known and influential, to spread the word by getting their shots is part of a strategy geared toward achieving health equity.
Along with a new administration in Washington, D.C., that has pledged to confront inequities in health care, sports leagues could, in theory, make the case that, rather than acting in their own self-interest, they are focused on another prize.
During a Sportico webinar Wednesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, “Several public health officials — and as you know this is somewhat operating state by state right now — have suggested there would be a real public health benefit to getting some very high-profile African-Americans vaccinated to demonstrate to the larger community that it is safe and effective.”
Silver said he thinks “there are really sound reasons” and “real value” to use NBA players in this cause.
“Anything we do will be fully transparent and in conjunction with public health authorities, so there’s no sense whatsoever that there is some favoritism going on here,” he said, “that it would only be done if public health officials ultimately determine on balance that it was the right time to vaccinate our players.”
Unless Massachusetts athletes have an underlying condition that would merit vaccination, they fall in the same Phase 3 spot as the general public in the state’s vaccination plan.
That plan, according to a spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center, “reflects the state’s commitment to equitable distribution of the vaccine and prioritizes the preservation of health care resources, vulnerable populations, and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.”
The state will target diverse communities for an upcoming public awareness campaign focused on vaccine safety and efficacy.
After its conference championships this weekend, the NFL will have two weeks to gear up for the largest stage of them all, the Super Bowl, set for Feb. 7. The league will use that platform to promote vaccination, in part by introducing a cohort of vaccinated health care workers at the game.
League officials have more plans, too.
“We’ve had multiple discussions with the relevant local, state, and federal agencies to work together on plans to help promote vaccines using the clubs and players,” said NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy. “More to come on that as well.”
In a statement, MLB said, “In conjunction with our team of medical experts, we are tracking all developments related to vaccines. We are working on plans both to promote vaccination and to ensure that the members of our industry are vaccinated at an appropriate time.”
To date, the NHL has put out public service announcements on social distancing and mask-wearing. An NHL spokesperson said, “I would expect our public messaging to continue to evolve in the coming weeks and months.”
One medical ethicist said that while he understands there is some merit to the notion that athletes can help the community by getting their vaccine publicly, he added, “It can be equally likely to backfire.”
Michael Gusmano, research scholar at The Hastings Center and professor of health policy at Rutgers School of Public Health, said, “One reaction could be, ‘Look at this: if you’re privileged, you get access to this,’ and another reaction could be, ‘OK, Black and brown people are not receiving equal treatment and equal care but when they’re providing us entertainment, we make sure they’re getting access to this so they can continue to make money for billionaire owners.’ And third, ‘Oh look, they’re experimenting on Black and brown athletes and exploiting them.’ ”
Another medical ethicist, Daniel Wikler, said he thinks the plan can work only if it’s used sparingly.
“I don’t see it except for a handful of very popular players smilingly receiving a vaccine, and getting the word out,” said Wikler, a professor at Harvard School of Public Health and a faculty associate in the Safra Center for Ethics and Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics. “That might be great, but we don’t need more than a handful in that case.”
According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, Black people are dying from the virus at 1.5 times the rate of white people, with other data sources showing them with higher infection and hospitalization rates as well.
A survey from the The Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor showed that Black adults rank near the top (33 percent) in hesitancy to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, a group led by Republicans (42 percent), those ages 30-49 (36 percent), and rural residents (also 35 percent).
The reasons for the hesitancy are many, the survey found, with the predominant ones centering on general mistrust about vaccines, newness of this vaccine, and worries stemming from misinformation about getting COVID-19 from this particular vaccine.
Underlying that hesitancy is a history of well-earned suspicion about the medical establishment based on shameful episodes including the federally funded Tuskegee Syphilis Study between 1932 and 1972 in which syphilis cases among Black males were left untreated, and cruel gynecological studies performed on slaves in the 1800s.
Anticipating the resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine in Black and other communities, the National Institutes of Health convened an expert panel last year to examine how best to overcome it. Based on behavioral and social science research, the report found that in order to “help rapidly activate and mobilize a community and dispel concerns or distrust,” the right vaccine information needs to be delivered at the community level by trusted messengers.
Athletes, the report found, among other celebrities including musicians, actors, and social media influencers, “may be very effective” and more likely to communicate accurate and positive vaccination messages than government, traditional media, or scientists.