• Villanova Sports Law Blog

Racing to the Vaccine: Professional Athletes vs The General Public


NBA analyst and basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said professional athletes should get preferential treatment when receiving the COVID-19 vaccine because of "the amount of taxes these guys pay."


By: Amanda Daoud


It is always a competition when it comes to sports but do athletes get to win at the race to vaccination? The SARS-Coronavirus-2 (COVID-19) pandemic brought the global world of sports to a halt last March when, in an unprecedented fashion, professional leagues, collegiate teams, and youth sports around the globe went silent. In the face of a rapidly evolving health crisis, the decision to cancel and postpone sporting events was not optional. Although hanging up cleats was devastating for the sports industry, there was no denying the virus’ continued impact on the livelihood of front lines employees and the family members of those who lost their loved ones.[1]


A year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.[2] Since then, many people have faced difficult situations revolving around the uncertainty of this virus. Roughly 2.5 million deaths have occurred due to this deadly virus. To combat its continued spread, United States pharmaceutical teams have worked diligently in developing three Federal Drug Administration (FDA)-approved vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson.[3]


The initial distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines brought hope that the pandemic was approaching an end and that people could return to “normal.” In an ideal world, every American would be offered the opportunity to become vaccinated; at this point in time, the vaccine remains a somewhat rare commodity, with opportunities for vaccination continuing to be extremely limited.[4] The CDC framework for the vaccine’s allocation establishes priority for healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities.[5] The second tier of individuals include essential workers, adults over sixty-five, and those with underlying medical conditions who are at higher risk for severe disease and death from COVID-19.[6] Despite the outlined recommendations, groups such as professional athletes are eager to get back to their respective stadiums by attempting to jump the lines.[7]


National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) Commissioners Adam Silver and Roger Goodell, respectively, have acknowledged that the leagues will stand firm on adhering to U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) and public health guidelines for vaccine prioritization.[8] The panels of medical experts advising the league declared the three vaccines “safe and effective,” and stated that teams can anticipate vaccinating players and staff “consistent with the timing and prioritization set by the applicable public health guidelines.”[9] Officials of both leagues agree that it would be unethical if their healthy personnel were vaccinated before people in the general public who are more vulnerable to the virus[10]


Despite these sweeping public statements, the decision is ultimately left in the hands of the billionaire team owners who will quietly try[MD2] to secure vaccines for their players based on competitive advantage.[11] For example, if an NFL team has all of its players vaccinated and protected from the virus, it will have an advantage over another unprotected team.[12] If another COVID outbreak would occur, then the unprotected team might be forced to adjust its schedule. However, an outbreak would not limit the schedules of the “protected” teams as they would not have to lose key players to COVID throughout the season.[13] But is this fair? Regardless of the ethics behind it, this move could be held legal if these players were classified as “essential workers,” according to CDC guidelines.


In April 2020, World Wrestling Entertainment and other professional sports leagues with national audiences were classified as “essential services” in Florida.[14] The following month, the Trump administration declared professional athletes “essential workers” because they are necessary to the enjoyment of the American people and provide the larger community pride and national unity.[15] Other officials have objected and stated that the label of “essential worker” applies strictly to the laborers who provide services critical to society’s most basic needs, such as grocery baggers and stockers.[16] This argument proposes that athletes do not fall within the classifications outlined in the second tier of the CDC recommendations.[17]


Even if athletes are not considered “essential employees” some officials have suggested that athletes should be able to jump the line because it would benefit societal health, as a matter of public policy.[18] During a Sportico webinar, NBA Commissioner Silver said that getting “some very high-profile” athletes vaccinated would demonstrate to the larger population that it is safe and effective, especially within the Black community.[19] Silver further stated that he thinks there would be a real value to use professional players’ platforms because it will target the diverse communities as an upcoming public awareness campaign focused on vaccine safety and efficacy.[20] One way to do this would be allowing a select set of prominent professional figures to be vaccinated now or present when high-risk people are vaccinated.


Polls show that Black Americans are more skeptical of the vaccine than Asian, Hispanic, and White Americans.[21] Experts attribute the vaccine hesitancy within the Black community to a host of factors: traumatizing historical episodes such as the federally-run Tuskegee syphilis study of Black men, disjoined federal leadership throughout the pandemic, widespread misinformation about the vaccine, and systematic disparities in healthcare treatment for minorities.[22] Arthur Reingold, the head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, and a member of the National Academies’ vaccine distribution committee stated: “ I don’t think there’s any doubt that professional athletes could have an important role to play in terms of speaking up for the vaccine and trying to get members of their respective communities to have faith in it.”[23]


Sports influencers, such as Stephen Curry, preached about social distancing and promoted Fauci among his 30 million Instagram followers.[24] Nick Saban yelled at Alabama’s mascot for not wearing a mask. Athletes have embraced public health activism this year and have heavily influenced the CDC and WHO guidelines among the general body.[25] While allowing players to receive the vaccine early could serve as a promotional campaign, it is still controversial for these young, healthy athletes receive the vaccine before the general public. Many front-line health officials, specifically, oppose the idea.


Michael Gusmano, a research scholar at The Hastings Center and professor of health policy at Rutgers School of Public Health, stated: “One reaction could be, ‘Look at this: if you’re privileged, you get access to this,’ and added, ‘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.’”[26] Reed Tuckson, the co-founder of the Black Coalition against COVID-19 and the former commissioner of public health for D.C. said vaccinating the players would be highly inappropriate and the professional leagues should wait until Biden’s goal is reached.[27] “This would be a terrible signal to send: that wealthy, privileged athletes were getting a special dispensation to get access to relatively scarce supplies of the vaccine.”[28]


Uche Blackstock, an emergency physician, argued that the NBA should wait until at least April or May to be vaccinated along with the general public because they are “young, healthy individuals and they are not at the highest risk” of death from the virus.[29] Further, Blackstock noted that 22,000 vaccine appointments in New York were canceled due to the delayed arrival from the federal reserve.[30] The state is already facing difficulties vaccinating early priority groups, therefore, athletes surely should wait.[31]


Although the billionaire team owners and health officials remain on two opposite ends of the scope, Tuckson proposed that players should signal their support of the vaccine by turning it into a family affair.[32] Rather than using resources from of the healthiest class of individuals, the front lines emergency doctor suggests a compromise which urges athletes to film their elderly or immunodeficient relatives getting vaccinated.[33] In Tuckson’s words: “Showing that they have an interest in this effort while showing that people over 65 and particularly those with other preexisting conditions [are the priority]. These athletes showing a real concern for their loved ones would be very helpful. If it’s good enough for my grandmother, it’s good enough for you.”[34]



References:

[1] Meet the Heroes of the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Fight, Time (2020), https://time.com/collection/coronavirus-heroes/.


[2] Christensen, J., On the anniversary of Covid-19 becoming an official public health emergency, experts say it's time for a change, CNN (Jan. 30, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/30/health/covid-19-public-health-emergency-first-anniversary/index.html.


[3] H., Branswell, H., Writer, A., Writer, H., & Says, J., Comparing three COVID-19 vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, J&J, StatNews (Feb. 04, 2021), https://www.statnews.com/2021/02/02/comparing-the-covid-19-vaccines-developed-by-pfizer-moderna-and-johnson-johnson/.


[4] Soucheray, Stephanie, COVID-19 vaccine in high demand across US, but supply limited, CIDRAP News (Feb 15, 2021), https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2021/02/covid-19-vaccine-high-demand-across-us-supply-limited.


[5] Professional athletes shouldn't get the COVID-19 vaccine before the public, Post and Courier (Jan. 12, 2021), https://www.postandcourier.com/sports/professional-athletes-shouldn-t-get-the-covid-19-vaccine-before-the-public/article_706b25fe-45f5-11eb-92d9-bbf9c753077b.html.


[6] Id.


[7] Id.


[8] Id.


[9] Igel, L., NBA doesn't want players to jump the line for Covid vaccine, but some should be allowed to do it, Forbes (Dec. 28, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/leeigel/2021/12/28/nba-doesnt-want-players-to-jump-the-line-for-covid-vaccine-but-some-should-be-allowed-to-do-it/?sh=18a0c9352895.


[10] Id.


[11] Id.


[12] Id.


[13] Id.


[14] Cash, M., The Trump administration has deemed professional athletes essential workers in the United States - Here's what that means for the return of sports, Insider.Com (May 28, 2020), https://www.insider.com/trump-administration-pro-athletes-essential-workers-sports-travel-2020-5.


[15] Id.


[16] Id.


[17] Silverman, M., When will pro athletes get the COVID-19 vaccine? The Boston Globe (January 21, 2021), https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/01/21/sports/pro-athletes-covid-vaccine-nfl-nba-mlb-nhl/.


[18] Id.


[19] Id.


[20] Id.


[21] Igel, L., NBA doesn't want players to jump the line for Covid vaccine, but some should be allowed to do it, Forbes (Dec. 28, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/leeigel/2021/12/28/nba-doesnt-want-players-to-jump-the-line-for-covid-vaccine-but-some-should-be-allowed-to-do-it/?sh=18a0c9352895.


[22] Id.


[23] Id.


[24] Id.


[25] Id.


[26] Id.


[27] Id.


[28] Id.


[29] Id.


[30] Id.


[31] Id.


[32] Id.


[33] Id.


[34] Id.


[35] Furry, R. (2021, January 15). Charles Barkley says pro athletes should get preferential Vaccine treatment. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://www.today.com/news/charles-barkley-says-pro-athletes-should-get-preferential-vaccine-treatment-t20594