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5 Jan, 2022 15:36

Sport’s ‘big three’ vaccine holdouts are forced to the fore

A trio of sports stars have been front and center in the debate about vaccines in sport – but each has remained defiant in the face of public scrutiny
Sport’s ‘big three’ vaccine holdouts are forced to the fore

Novak Djokovic, Aaron Rodgers and Kyrie Irving have emerged as lightning rods in the ongoing debate about vaccine mandates in sport, but none of them has bowed to public pressure despite the torrential backlash.

Australians reacted with apoplexy this week at the news that tennis world number one Novak Djokovic had been granted permission to enter their borders for the upcoming Australian Open in Melbourne.

Djokovic's right to do so came after he was granted a 'medical exemption' previously thought impossible, or at least improbable, ahead of the first Grand Slam of the new year.

But no sooner had it been confirmed that Djokovic's (apparently anonymous) application had received a thumbs-up, than the Serb had found himself in the firing line – with Australian PM Scott Morrison fuming that the tennis star will be on the "next flight home" unless every 'I' is dotted and 'T' is crossed to his approval. 

The furor surrounding Djokovic's status ahead of what could potentially be a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam win at Melbourne Park later this month has been matched in others sports.

Kryie Irving, the NBA superstar of the Brooklyn Nets who is unvaccinated, is set to return to his team this week on a part-time basis, having been previously excommunicated due to his vaccine hesitancy.

Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP who is now the bookies' favorite to win the award for a second season in succession, was pilloried on the NFL beat for having the temerity to explain in great detail why he was uneasy with being railroaded into a shot, drawing ridicule from the mainstream press in the process. 

In the curious case of Djokovic, his admittance into the Australian Open (even if it is through the organizers' gritted teeth) seems like the inevitable conclusion to what has been one of global sport's most dominant subplots of recent months.

As far back as the summer of 2020's ill-fated Adria Tour, Djokovic has been intrinsically linked to the virus and discussion surrounding the vaccine. The tournament – which was organized by the Serb – was abandoned after a Covid outbreak within its competitors, including Djokovic himself, and was widely criticized for its lax attitude towards social distancing and other preventative measures which had become vogue in various other sports.

Instead, and one can argue if this was a position courted by Djokovic, he was painted as something of an anti-vax zealot – despite publicly refusing to be drawn into specifics as it related to his own personal position, or to divulge his vaccine status. 

This month's Australian Open, though, was always going to be the litmus test. Entry into Australia is restricted if you are un-jabbed – unless, of course, you happen to be the best tennis player on earth. Djokovic has been afforded leeway to walk the epidemiological tightrope in pursuit of another Grand Slam, or so critics will claim. 

And you get the sense that both he and the powers-that-be in tennis wouldn't have it any other way. 

Kyrie Irving finds himself in a similar position. The Nets, currently in second place in NBA's Eastern Conference, have lost three straight games amid a run of losing players to both Covid and injury. Apparently fearful of losing further ground to the Chicago Bulls (winners of eight straight, by the way), a call was put out to Irving to request his return.  

One can only imagine there were a few tails definitively between legs when the Nets' brass made that call, too. 

Rules within New York still mean that Irving will be a persona non grata for home games within the state, but most road games are now back on the menu in a move which directly contradicts the team's prior position on the matter.

Ironically, the onset of the highly transmissible Omicron variant which has played havoc in the sports world may have played into Irving's favor, given the sheer number of his teammates within the league who have been forced into isolation because of it. 

But while Djokovic and Irving commanded intense intrigue throughout their Covid narratives, perhaps no one in sports received quite as much flak as Aaron Rodgers.

And to be clear, plenty of it is his own fault. The Packers QB communicated to the press in August that he was "immunized" against Covid-19 when directly asked if he was vaccinated – but what he actually meant was that he had taken a cocktail of alternative therapies after he determined that he was "allergic" to the various vaccines on offer.

At best this was a manipulation of the truth, and something that Rodgers freely admits he would handle differently if he had a do-over, but the press didn't miss their own opportunity for vengeance when the 38-year-old was struck down with the virus a couple of months back.

Like both Djokovic and Irving, Rodgers was attacked for his stance – and even more so when he admitted that he had sought advice from controversial podcaster Joe Rogan as to how to best recover. The use of Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic that some claim has useful properties against a Covid infection, saw Rodgers cast into the role of a conspiracy theorist who was "taking a horse de-wormer" instead of the vaccine.

"I realize I’m in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now," Rodgers said in November. 

"So, before my final nail gets put in my cancel culture casket, I think I would like to set the record straight on so many of the blatant lies that are out there about myself.

"I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and ability to make choices for your body: Not have to acquiesce to some woke culture or crazed group of individuals who say you have to do something. Health is not a one-size-fits-all for everybody."

But like Djokovic, who is chasing history Down Under, and Irving, who is hoping to drag the Nets to the NBA title, Rodgers and the Green Bay team he leads find themselves as the outright favorites to win the Super Bowl in five weeks' time. 

Let's see if the same figures who bemoaned their vaccination status will champion their achievements in the same breath. 

By John Balfe 

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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