Sports

The Sports Teams Getting the COVID Vaccine Are Getting an Edge

Cases like the Phillies’ are now voluntary. On top of every other reason to get the shot, athletes now have a competitive one.

Bohm, in his home Phillies uniform in the field, closes his eyes and grimaces.
Alec Bohm reacts after committing an error against the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on June 30, in Philly. Another error he made was not getting vaccinated. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Phillies have COVID problems, several months after it became easy for them to avoid COVID problems. Over the weekend, third baseman Alec Bohm tested positive, landing on the COVID injured list for at least 10 days. Via contact tracing, three others (starting pitcher Aaron Nola and relievers Bailey Falter and Connor Brogdon) have joined him on the shelf.

There have been rare outbreaks and scares in locker rooms where the overwhelming majority of players and staff are vaccinated. In the spring, the New York Yankees had a series of breakthrough cases in which the virus infected vaccinated players. But that is not what has happened with the Phillies, who are one of the major leagues’ least vaccinated teams and apparently proud of it. As of June 25, seven of 30 teams had fewer than 85 percent of their players and high-level staff fully vaccinated, the threshold that allows a team to considerably loosen its COVID protocols. The Phillies are still on that list, and reporting from the Athletic’s Matt Gelb makes clear that they have no collective intention of changing.

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Gelb reports the Phillies won’t say how many players are unvaccinated, but that it’s “a meaningful number, to the point that months ago, the Phillies were certain they would never reach the 85 percent threshold.” He also writes the holdouts’ vaccine opposition is “driven by a handful of influential players who have voiced opposition to it,” and provides some examples of anti-vaccine talking points that are almost jaw-dropping in how nonsensical they sound. Pitcher Brandon Kintzler had neck pain during an outing and decided it was thanks to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, not, you know, to pitching. Pitcher Archie Bradley “alluded to” the vaccine, rather than, uh, pitching, causing oblique issues. Shortstop Didi Gregorious blamed the vaccine for an elbow problem. The report says team doctors have tried to “dispel” these notions, but in their defense, the players don’t seem especially movable. “There has to be some science behind it,” Kintzler said of the vaccine preceding several Phillies suffering baseball injuries. Manager Joe Girardi sounds like a guy who has given up, saying the club is “beyond” peer pressure.

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The Phillies story is jarring because of how thick a significant number of the team’s players are being. They have access to all the medical information they could want from a highly qualified team of medical professionals who travel with them, work in their clubhouse, and sit in the dugout with them during games. The most generous possible explanation for their refusal is that some players might have had bad experiences with the medical staff or with other doctors in the past, and that as a result, they trust their teammates’ medical expertise more than that of any medical professional in their immediate vicinity. But unlike many who have pointed to negative health care experiences as reasons for their vaccine hesitancy, the four sidelined players are not victims of systemic medical racism; Bohm, Nola, Falter, and Brogdon are white. Nor are any of the unvaccinated Phillies disinformation victims in the same way as someone sitting at home watching Fox News. They are just being dumb.

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The self-inflicted plight of the Phillies, though, is part of a phenomenon that’s broader than the dumbness of many of the team’s players. We’ve reached a new phase in how American sports interact with COVID. In this phase, not getting the vaccine risks imposing major competitive costs on athletes and teams. At the same time, anti-vaccine skepticism is proving to be an athlete safety issue that unions are helpless to fully address, even as they share an unusual degree of consensus with their typical negotiating adversaries: the leagues.

In 2020, Major League Baseball did what every other major American league did: It played through a raging pandemic when there was no vaccine available. Inevitably, players got COVID during both a 60-game regular season and the playoffs. Teams regularly dealt with losing batters and pitchers who tested positive or came up in contact-tracing reports. Series were postponed. Justin Turner tested positive during a World Series game and then celebrated maskless with his team, which was understandable on Turner’s part, although not on the part of the league that allowed it. COVID hit every team differently, but the burden of dealing with it fell on every team in equal measure. Each club had to run a tight ship and follow the same pandemic protocols, and each had to understand that its roster might be upended at any moment, because it wasn’t possible to hold large group activities indoors (where teams eat, shower, change, and travel) without risking transmission. The risk was a mutually agreed cost of doing business.

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It is different now. The pandemic isn’t over, but it has abated in the United States, because many people have chosen to do what select Phillies have not. Series are not getting postponed. Fans are in stadiums, and the only capacity limits arise from how many people want to watch mediocre baseball teams in extreme heat. Players are not going onto the COVID list in bulk.

This new chapter of the pandemic has raised the competitive costs of athletes declining the vaccine. The Phillies are within arm’s length of the top of the National League East at the All-Star Break, sitting 3.5 games back of the New York Mets. The other team chasing the Mets, the Atlanta Braves, just lost its best player for the rest of the year. The Phillies are lucky that the next four days are off days, providing a chance for any infected players to hopefully get the virus out of their systems. But they’re still missing players as a pennant race heats up. One might point out that Nola is not currently the pitcher he used to be, or that Bohm is a lousy hitter, or that Brogdon and Falter are barely above-replacement-level relievers. But they’re better than the Phillies think their replacements are, or they wouldn’t have their spots. Any extended (or further) absences will cut further into the Phillies’ comeback hopes, and the cost will rise because teams that have more vaccinated players will face far fewer COVID absences.

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Other sports have featured more acute examples. The NCAA booted NC State’s baseball team from the College World Series when the Wolfpack had a series of positive COVID tests from unvaccinated players, which led the NCAA to also test the team’s vaccinated players, which in turn led to four of those players (among eight total) testing positive. The PGA Tour automatically disqualified Jon Rahm from The Memorial when he led by six shots after the third round. The tournament was in June, and Rahm hadn’t gotten his first vaccine shot until right before the tournament. Like the NCAA, the Tour’s practice was not to routinely test fully vaccinated athletes, meaning both NC State and Rahm would’ve avoided their situations by getting more vaccine shots sooner. To his credit, Rahm was introspective about his ordeal, then went on to win the U.S. Open.

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It’s not just that vaccinations loosen testing requirements and make it less likely (or impossible) for athletes to be removed from competition at the drop of a hat. Leagues have instituted policies, in collaboration with their players’ unions, that make life a lot more pleasant for athletes who get their shots. In MLB, vaccinated players don’t have to wear masks and can eat in restaurants as they please. In the NFL, in addition to not getting daily cotton swabs up their nostrils, vaccinated players can do a whole list of things unvaccinated players cannot do.

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It’s hard to tell how well these policies have worked. The NFL and MLB both lump players and staff together in “tiers” that include people of many different and often nebulous roles, so it’s not clear exactly what it means when a league says a certain number of “tier members” are vaccinated. The NFL says 65 percent of players have had at least one shot, which is encouraging (and better than the national rate for people in NFL players’ age set) but nonetheless leaves some questions unanswered. Half of teams have 50 players vaccinated, which also sounds good but gets less so when you realize offseason NFL rosters have up to 90 players, not the in-season number of 53. The WNBA is pro sports’ standout in this area, reporting that 99 percent of players are fully vaccinated.

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Despite some athletes going viral for saying shockingly wrong things, it doesn’t seem like professional athletes as a whole are doing much worse than the rest of the country at getting the shot. They may even be doing better. But there’s clearly a lot more work to do in leagues other than the WNBA. Given all the opportunities and rules around the vaccines that already exist, what else is even an option?

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One place to look might be athlete unions, which have been an enormous force for player health and rights in pro sports. In the NFL, safety and working conditions are regularly the subject of dogged negotiations between the union and team ownership. (For example, NFL union leadership has pushed lately to limit offseason practices, with an eye toward lessening wear and tear on players’ bodies.) On COVID protocols, the unions and their leagues seem to have enjoyed an unusual consensus in developing procedures on the fly, working together to develop policies that function as both carrots and sticks to encourage vaccination. It didn’t require overt trades of political capital—as the NFLPA agreeing to an extra regular-season game in exchange for a higher cut of revenues did—to put these rules into effect. Getting the vaccine is objectively easier than going to even a single day of an NFL training camp or putting up with even a week of regular testing. But holdouts remain. The NFLPA has a few militant vaccine opponents  in its ranks, which sounds like a reflection of the country.

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Which brings us back to the Phillies. As long as there is vaccine skepticism in America, it will also exist in baseball clubhouses. One path forward is for leagues to eventually throw up their hands and stop enforcing COVID protocols at all. That might well happen one day, but it’s not going to be during leagues’ 2021 seasons. Another would be for leagues and their unions to require vaccinations, which some leagues have already decided to do with nonplayers. (Plenty of nonsports businesses have also required shots.) The other path forward is for players to take pride in being intentionally wrong, and for their teams to pay a price when players are occasionally forced to sit out. Play stupid games, and you might find yourself winning stupid prizes.

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