Could athlete vaccinations help America beat the pandemic?

Henry Bushnell
·7 min read

Jerome Adams could have called upon anybody. Any scientist, politician or celebrity in the United States. As one of the most powerful public health figures in the nation, the U.S. Surgeon General had his pick. But last week, when Adams steered a Los Angeles television interview back to COVID-19 vaccines, and when he sought a famous figure to aid the country’s cause, he pivoted to sports.

“LeBron James,” he said out of nowhere. “I want to know when you’re going to take the shot. Not the basketball shot, but the COVID shot.”

To some, his message seemed awkward. Perhaps corny, and probably strange. James, one of the healthiest 36-year-olds on the planet, isn’t next in line for a coronavirus vaccine. The NBA, like other major leagues, plans to wait its turn.

But in public health circles, Adams’ message reflected a growing belief: that prominent sports figures could ultimately help America push past the pandemic.

“Star athletes,” says Sherry Pagoto, a health communication professor at UConn, “have a unique opportunity here for impact.”

Society yearns for normalcy. Recapturing it will depend on widespread vaccine acceptance. And vaccine acceptance, experts say, is something sports figures can help foster in a variety of ways. Skepticism is diminishing, but still substantial. So throughout 2021, public messaging campaigns will persuade skeptics to roll up their sleeves. And athletes, says Steven Hoffman, a York University professor who has studied the subject, “actually might be [some] of the very best and most effective messengers.”

Most campaign planning remains in early stages, with vaccine availability to the general public still months away. But several city and state health departments told Yahoo Sports that sports figures will “definitely” or likely be involved. Spokesmen for two prominent college coaches said the coaches will be willing to participate. Adam Silver has said the NBA will “very likely be part of some public service campaigns.” And the Ad Council, which launched a $50 million “national vaccine education effort,” told Yahoo Sports that it is “exploring working with athletes.” Experts hope some will get vaccinated on camera.

Because visible, informed advocacy “could do such great things,” Pagoto says. “It would be heroic, honestly.”

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James runs past fans on his way to the court before an NBA preseason basketball game against the Denver Nuggets Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Experts say LeBron James' influence could help spread the word on vaccination. (AP)

Why athletes can be influential messengers

The vaccines are scientific marvels. A panel of qualified scientists has deemed Pfizer’s and Moderna’s effective and safe. But “one problem with scientists,” explains Carly Goldstein, a behavioral medicine professor at Brown, “is that we're really pretty terrible at PR.” They spend thousands of hours on complex science. They spend relatively few on building public trust.

So when they need it, as they do now, they turn to people who have it. And celebrities, for better or worse, “do have an audience that really pays attention to them,” says Emily Brunson, a medical anthropologist at Texas State.

Brunson and three other experts interviewed for this story recently worked with the National Institutes of Health to develop recommendations for addressing vaccine hesitancy. Their report concluded that public figures, among many other Americans, will “be important partners in communicating to audiences who are less likely to attend to information disseminated by government, traditional media, or scientists.” Sylvia Chou, an NIH staffer who co-wrote the paper, admits that public health officials “sometimes have trouble bridging certain social and political divides. So I think this is where athletes have a tremendous opportunity.”

Their power, experts say, is in both their admirability and their reach. Hoffman, who authored a 2015 paper on how celebrities influence health-related behavior, says “humans are biologically, psychologically and socially hardwired to follow the advice of celebrities. … Anything that they talk about or do themselves, they lend their golden glow to those products or actions.

“They also have massive social media [followings] and social networks. Such that when they do something, they influence others, who influence others, and others, and so on.” The celebs directly influence decisions. They also indirectly help normalize them.

And every expert interviewed for this story said that athletes indeed fall under that “celebrity” umbrella.

“I'm actually particularly excited about athletes, even maybe more so than other celebrities, for a handful of reasons,” Goldstein said.

Among the reasons she and others gave:

  • Athletes are often seen as models for physical health.

  • Athletes would have the most to lose if the vaccines weren’t safe – because any significant, long-lasting side effects could upend their careers.

  • Athletes have broad influence across many social and political spectrums. Vaccine hesitancy is also demographically diverse. A campaign that, for example, featured both James and Tom Brady could reach a wide range of skeptics. “The beauty of professional sports in particular is that there's an athlete for almost everyone,” Goldstein says. “[Sports] cut across the American public in ways that a lot of other industries can't really achieve.”

  • Many popular athletes are Black, and have considerable influence in Black communities – where vaccine hesitancy often exists at higher rates due to distrust in medical treatment.

  • Athletes have strong geographical ties – namely, to the cities their teams represent – and are therefore prime candidates for local campaigns, even if they aren’t seen as celebrities nationally.

And vaccine campaigns, for the most part, are local endeavors. Multiple experts urged athletes to work with their respective city or state health departments to figure out how they can help. Because it’s critical, experts say, to get the messaging right.

But some megastars will have national reach. A recent Harris Poll reported that roughly 1 in 4 Americans said they’d be more willing to get vaccinated if they saw James, Brady, Serena Williams or Michael Jordan get vaccinated first. Even a small fraction of that influence could nudge some communities past their herd immunity thresholds and toward normalcy.

How – and when – athletes can help

There remains the question, though, of when those athletes should get access to the vaccine. The opening weeks of vaccine rollout have been filled with photo ops. But athletes can’t partake right now because they aren’t essential workers. They aren’t older than 65. Most don’t have underlying conditions that put them at increased risk. And they’re wary of the optics. Many leagues have jumped lines for testing. But their commissioners have said they won’t for vaccines. Elderly coaches and former athletes could publicize their vaccinations sooner, and perhaps to similar societal effect. But active athletes, the ones with the most engaged audiences, seem prepared to wait.

That does not, however, mean they can’t yet use their influence. Brunson points to Steph Curry and his interviews with Anthony Fauci. Lending massive platforms to experts, she says, “can be particularly powerful.” Sharing “prosocial” messages can help as well. Experts suggest PSAs that indicate an athlete’s willingness and eagerness to get vaccinated, when their turn arrives – and that also call on fans to follow their lead, for the good of their communities, or even for the sake of full sports stadiums.

Come spring, the queue will presumably clear. Athletes will inch to the front of it. Impressionable skeptics will open their eyes and ears. Of course, some athletes will be skeptical themselves. But that, experts say, could ultimately make their advocacy even more impactful. Several sources urged them to turn photo ops into immersive videos; to speak authentically about prior concerns; to explain how they overcame those concerns, and which doctors they consulted, and why they ultimately accepted the vaccine. Doing so would help a public that might be grappling with similar unease.

Experts also suggest that athletes follow up after the photo op; update fans on any symptoms or side-effects; and show that, in all likelihood, days after getting their injection, they are feeling just fine.

“Helping people walk through all of that is something really useful that the athletes could do,” Goldstein says. “We don't need them to be doctors. We need them to connect with the humanity of the people that look up to them.”

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