Moments after Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after making a tackle on 2 January, Covid-19 conspiracy theorists and right-wing personalities baselessly blamed his injuries on vaccine side effects.
Anti-vaccine influencers and right-wing media figures have also shared debunked claims about athletes allegedly collapsing after their vaccinations.
Mr Hamlin remains in critical condition after suffering a cardiac arrest, according to a statement on 3 January from the Bills team. His heartbeat was restored “on the field and he was transferred to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for further testing and treatment,” the statement said.
On his programme that night, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson falsely stated that Mr Hamlin endured a “heart attack” and said medical experts who dismissed Covid-19-related conspiracy theories are “lying” and “witch doctors”.
“What we don’t know could fill volumes,” he said. “We don’t know the answer and there is no way to know the answer.”
He continued: “Hamlin was lying on the field receiving CPR when self-described medical experts in the media, people with no demonstrated medical ethics at all, effectively witch doctors, decided to use his tragic life-threatening injuries [as] an opportunity to spread still more propaganda about the Covid shots. ‘It could not have been the shot,’ they told you. ‘Shut up.’ They’re lying. They don’t know anything more than we know, which is effectively nothing.”
Cardiologists have suggested that Mr Hamlin likely experience commotio cordis, in which an impact to the chest can cause cardiac arrest.
Mr Carlson, who has stated that he is not vaccinated against Covid-19, has repeatedly misrepresented vaccine efficacy and safety and amplified false claims about vaccines and the public health crisis on his highly watched and influential programme.
Several studies have pointed to an acute partisan divide associated with vaccines and Covid-19-related deaths, and one study identified Fox News as a key tool for reducing vaccine uptake in the US.
“[T]here is an association between areas with higher Fox News viewership and lower vaccinations,” according to the report from ETH Zurcih, which noted that “media emphasis on minority viewpoints against scientific consensus is linked to vaccination hesitancy.”
Baseless claims linking Mr Hamlin’s injury to Covid vaccinations also immediately appeared widely on other right-wing networks and across social media, including Twitter, where the platform’s new owner Elon Musk abandoned previous policies that prohibited the spread of Covid-related mis- and disinformation during the ongoing public health crisis.
“You’ve got to consider the vaccine issues in this regard,” far-right activist Steve Bannon said on his War Room programme on 3 January.
“This is brutal. And I know what everyone with any common sense is thinking. This isn’t the first time a pro athlete had this happen,” former Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield said on Twitter along with two syringe emoji and the words “NFL mandate.”
Turning Point USA co-founder Charlie Kirk called his collapse a “tragic and all too familiar sight right now: Athletes dropping suddenly.”
“Everybody knows what happened to Damar Hamlin because it’s happened to too many athletes around the world since COVID vaccination was required in sports,” wrote former Newsmax host Emerald Robinson.
“Another athlete who dropped suddenly,” wrote Drew Pinksy, the former host of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr Drew.
As of 3 January, it was unclear what caused Mr Hamlin’s collapse, and it still has not yet been revealed whether he was even vaccinated. The NFL has preciously reported that roughly 95 per cent of its players are vaccinated.
Sudden cardiac arrest among young athletes has been a concern among medical researchers for several years, predating the pandemic, but there is no evidence suggesting that vaccines are driving such injuries.
“It just really fits in with the narrative that was already circulating that any collapse of a person may be vaccine related, no matter lack of evidence,” John Gregory, health editor of watchdoggroup NewsGuard, told The Washington Post.