Asking Athletes About Their COVID-19 Vaccination Status Is A Journalist’s Job

COVID-19 vaccines remain a hot-button topic in and out of sports — that's why journalists have to keep asking about them.

Why do we need to know an athlete’s COVID-19 vaccination status? That question is behind renewed animus towards sports reporters from the inescapable Twitter peanut gallery, who view merely asking an athlete whether or not they have been vaccinated as a violation of privacy. Never mind that journalism is an industry whose purpose is literally to (ethically) violate norms of privacy: the whole idea of reporting is to uncover relevant information that someone has a vested interest in keeping hidden.

In the case of athletes, COVID-19 vaccination status is as relevant as any other personal health query. As the pandemic recedes within the U.S. but is far from completely neutralized, a player’s vaccine status can have a very clear-cut impact on their ability to suit up — hardly a life or death matter, but well-established as within the realm of some broadly defined “public interest.”

The question of whether or not it’s fair that athletes’ personal health is a matter of public concern is a worthwhile one, an extension of the way that sports can turn people into bodies — only the sum of their high-functioning parts. But asking whether or not a player is at high risk of missing practices or games because they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 is minimally invasive in comparison to the other questions a player has to field when they’re out of commission for any reason that can’t be explained by a straightforward break, tear or sprain. It is not, despite the popular rebuttal, a HIPAA violation for journalists to inquire about vaccination status. Only medical professionals can violate HIPAA by sharing a patient’s personal and medical information with unapproved parties. 

It shouldn’t be relevant from a public safety standpoint, given that vaccines are now widely available in the U.S. and anyone an athlete comes into contact with at a team facility or game could and should be vaccinated themselves. That said, athletes often wear their “role model” badges with pride; since vaccine supply is outstripping demand despite the fact that in places like my own current home, Dallas, less than 50% of the population has been vaccinated, advertising their decision to get vaccinated would undoubtedly encourage their fans to take that crucial step for public safety.

Is it fair to expect, on top of everything else, that athletes serve as walking, talking PSAs for the vaccine? No. But it’s also not fair to demand that they commit to charity work, or maintain a squeaky-clean, child-friendly public image, or not gloat when they win and sulk when they lose. We demand a million unfair things of athletes on any given day; this one is more important than all the rest. 

The only reason for the widespread concern-trolling about privacy around vaccinations is because they’ve been so effectively and needlessly politicized, the seed of entry-level conspiracy theories that make even otherwise thoughtful people see the world as out to get them (which … it is — but more in the late capitalism sense, not in the government microchipping you with vaccines sense). 

The absolute inanity of what is deemed personal information — who and what deserves protection — is distilled in a recent Wisconsin headline: “Assembly passes bills to ban transgender athletes from sports teams, prohibit vaccine mandates.” In banning trans athletes, lawmakers are violating a minority to “protect” some mythologized norm; in prohibiting vaccine mandates, they are enabling individuals to perpetrate concrete harm on the population as a whole. Both acts are responses to bogeymans that fall along crystal clear political and socioeconomic lines; much more understandable vaccine hesitancy among Black people might be abetted by Wisconsin lawmakers’ legislation, but it almost definitely was not the impetus. Instead, they appeased rich, white conservatives and the culture wars that allow them to grift unbothered in perpetuity.

they appeased rich, white conservatives and the culture wars that allow them to grift unbothered in perpetuity.

Professional sports teams could take the politics out of it, could make the pragmatic decision, could make individual players’ lives easier by allowing them to not have to answer these questions at all: they could just require all players and staff to be vaccinated. This isn’t unprecedented — most college athletes, at least, have to receive whatever vaccines the school they’re attending requires. It is legal. Tier 1 and Tier 2 NFL staff — all the NFL staff who work with players but aren’t players themselves — are required to be vaccinated if they want to continue to work on the sidelines. 

Still, it’s unlikely that NFL players or any other pros are likely to face a vaccine mandate, given both the PR aspect and the fact that they would have to negotiate with the player unions. Bills GM Brandon Beane was already chided by NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith for saying that he would cut an unvaccinated player for a vaccinated one if push came to shove, which would be a clear violation of the CBA — but it’s not hard to imagine front offices making those kinds of choices without saying as much. 

Requiring players to be vaccinated would ultimately make everyone’s lives easier and safer, but for league administration, it’s less of a hassle to just let each individual player live with the consequences of their decision than to make it for them.

As per usual, most governing bodies in sports are abdicating a potentially controversial choice in favor of letting their players take the fall. Not even the Olympics — which present all the makings of a superspreader event with athletes coming from all over the world, including countries where vaccines are barely available, much less going unused — are requiring athletes to be vaccinated, though they will be arriving in a country just emerging from a pandemic-induced state of emergency. Until the people with power decide to step up, journalists will have to keep asking players and administrators about whether they have been vaccinated — both because it’s their job, and because it’s the right thing to do. 

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