The initial distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine brings hope that we are nearing the end of the pandemic. The CDC vaccine allocation framework emphasizes health workers and residents of long-term care facilities receive it first.
It is believed that the next will be basic workers, adults over the age of 65 and those with a basic health condition who are at higher risk of severe illness and death from coronavirus. But I strongly feel that one group should not be allowed to jump to the front line – professional athletes.
Leagues say the right things in public. The NBA and NFL have acknowledged that they will follow the guidelines of government and health officials. I trust them. If Roger Goodell or Adam Silver lobbied for players to be vaccinated before the aforementioned groups, the public outcry would be huge.
But I also believe that many owners of billionaire teams will quietly try to provide vaccines for their players. I have no knowledge that any owner or team is trying to do this, but I firmly believe some will.
The reason is simple: The vaccine offers a great competitive advantage.
If an NBA team, for example, vaccinates all its players and therefore protects them from viruses, it has an advantage over another unprotected team. If an outbreak of COVID occurs, and it is likely that these teams will continue for the next few months, then that team could be forced to adjust its schedule. He may now have to play five games in five nights, while the vaccinated team plays with normal rest days.
In addition, this “protected” team will not lose key players from COVID for several weeks during important parts of the season.
It seems exaggerated, but there are at least two ways owners could try to give their players a vaccine. One would be lobbying state health officials that athletes are “necessary workers.” In April, World Wrestling Entertainment and other professional sports leagues and media productions with a national audience were classified as “basic services” in Florida and allowed to continue operating.
Second, the owners could put pressure on the doctors of their teams to exaggerate the basic health conditions of the players. Given medical confidentiality, there are unlikely to be checks on whether these health conditions exist by healthcare professionals who actually give the vaccine.
These teams have the financial means to provide almost any medical care they want. The NBA caused quite a bit of criticism when entire teams passed the COVID tests in March, when those same tests were rare for everyone else. Leagues and teams, meanwhile, have contracted private labs to pay for the best and fastest tests.
According to The Washington Post, the NFL has already conducted nearly 700,000 coronavirus tests this season.
Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal recently reported that some health officials believe allowing professional athletes to get the vaccine will help encourage the general public to get it. Such a display of self-confidence, they claim, would be especially important for minorities, who seem more resistant to the vaccine. But couldn’t athletes encourage people to get the vaccine without crossing the line on their own?
Maybe they could post public service announcements or promote them on their social media accounts.
I understand that professional athletes make up a fairly small number of people in relation to the total population. The total number of players in the active squad of the four major American sports, not counting the expanded MLB squad that starts in the postseason, is 3,609. That’s only about a quarter of about 14,000 MUSC employees.
Athletes are not basic workers. They provide entertainment that distracts us from the bad condition caused by this pandemic. But they are not crucial to the functioning of society, such as teachers, police officers, firefighters and members of the military. I go further and suggest that they are less important in a large scheme of things than employees of restaurants, grocery stores, public transportation and many other industries.
I’m like a million sports fans. I love sports and I love being able to watch sports. I support the leagues that are playing now despite the difficult circumstances. But as much as we love sports, the athletes we love to watch are not more important than everyone else. Allowing them to get the vaccine early just doesn’t seem right.
Note: David Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of “It Must Hurt: Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.”