To jab or not to jab? Vaccinations still hot topic in sports

Nick Rolovich - Washington State head football coach, Photo Date: Oct 16, 2021. Credit: WSUCougarAthletics / YouTube.

Several months after COVID-19 vaccinations were made widely available in the United States, vaccination status continues to disrupt professional and college sports.

Posted: Oct 20, 2021 3:46 PM

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman let out a faint cough and assured those seated at least 6 feet away that it was allergies, not COVID-19. He had tested negative for the coronavirus three times in the previous week.

It allowed the fully vaccinated 69-year-old the opportunity to underscore the message that the virus is still part of the NHL and other professional sports leagues 19 months into the pandemic.

“It’s no joke,” Bettman said. “We’re still dealing with COVID, although not in the same ways.”

U.S. sports have successfully forced more athletes and staff to get vaccinated than many other industries, in part because the threat of losing pay is so severe. Yet, the outliers have and will continue to get more attention and generate outrage from fans who want to see stars play.

Basketball's Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal, football's Kirk Cousins, Cole Beasley and Chase Young, baseball's Chris Sale and hockey's Tyler Bertuzzi have all held out, with varying degrees of outspoken skepticism. On Monday, the NHL suspended San Jose's Evander Kane 21 games for submitting a fake vaccination card and Washington State University fired football coach Nick Rolovich for failing to comply with a state government vaccine mandate, providing two more reminders of the impact the coronavirus is still having on professional and college sports.

They're in the shrinking minority.

Major League Baseball, in the middle of its postseason, reports 87.4% of players and key staff are fully vaccinated. The NFL through six weeks of its season is at 94%, with 133 active players who have not had at least one dose . NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Monday his league is at 96% with the chance for that number to tick up. Bettman noted last week the NHL had only four unvaccinated players out of more than 700 — well over 99% fully vaccinated.

"If given grades, those are A-pluses," said former women's basketball player Iciss Tillis, who is now a labor and employment attorney at the law firm Hall Estill. “It’s been really interesting to watch the transition over the past year and a half go from extreme skepticism to, I guess, people being able to see friends and family go ahead and get the vaccine first and sort of see how they react to it. I think that’s playing a huge role in this shift that we’re seeing towards people pretty much just giving in and just going ahead and taking the vaccine.”

None of those leagues has a full mandate, but all imposed rules treating differently players who are fully vaccinated. In addition, some cities and states put further requirements on players and coaches, especially those at state universities such as Rolovich. Daily coronavirus testing, mask wearing and restrictions on movement made more players choose to be vaccinated — as did the threat of losing pay.

The NBA's Brooklyn Nets begin the season without Irving, who cannot play or practice at home because of a New York City vaccine mandate. The team told him he couldn't play — even in road games — until his status changes. Irving and other unvaccinated players around pro sports don't get paid for the games they miss.

“For athletes in particular, their livelihood is based on their ability to compete,” said Dr. Wendy King of the University of Pittsburgh, who took part in a research project on vaccine hesitancy earlier this year. “Even if they thought, ‘Oh, I’m pretty healthy and I wouldn’t get that bad of a case,’ it would still heavily impact their ability to go to work, to play in a game. It could affect their entire team — not just them — so they might feel like they’re letting other people down if they don’t do everything they can to prevent the disease.”

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos of Johns Hopkins University said job security and the threat of losing pay likely led to such a high vaccine uptake among athletes. “I think that’s a powerful thing,” he said.

It convinced some to get jabbed.

Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins — who faced a potential absence similar to Irving's because of a local mandate — decided to get a COVID-19 vaccine to be eligible to play. The NHL's agreement to go to the Olympics requires all participants to be fully vaccinated, which could lead New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood to change his mind, as well.

Leagues have still endured COVID-19 cases involving fully vaccinated players, coaches and staff. Deep in baseball's playoffs, the Atlanta Braves opened the NL Championship Series without Jorge Soler, who tested positive, and the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins started the season without winger Jake Guentzel.

Isolated absences are expected, Bettman said, because of the highly contagious delta variant.

“We’ve got to maintain our vigilance and be serious,” Bettman said. "I’m really proud of our players. All of our officials are vaccinated. All of our personnel who come near our players are vaccinated, and that’s what we’ve got to do. But we can’t let up. It’s a fact of life and it’s not just us. It’s what the world is still living with.”

One of hockey's biggest stars, Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, missed the first two games of the season after testing positive with a breakthrough case. Coach Jared Bednar hopes a combination of the entire team being vaccinated and many having already contracted COVID-19 allows the Avalanche and the league in general to stay on track this season.

MacKinnon was back on the ice Tuesday, thankful for his vaccination status and ready to play again.

"Nobody got sick, no teammates got sick, so that’s lucky," he said. "Didn’t feel anything, so the vaccine must work.”

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 512632

Reported Deaths: 10262
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34853555
DeSoto33162432
Hinds32556641
Jackson24830389
Rankin22442402
Lee16238242
Madison14874283
Jones14086247
Forrest13741259
Lauderdale12249324
Lowndes11286193
Lamar10644140
Pearl River9707244
Lafayette8827143
Hancock7835132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7204138
Monroe6989179
Pontotoc6970109
Warren6849178
Panola6746134
Neshoba6726210
Marshall6653141
Bolivar6440151
Union633897
Pike5924156
Alcorn5862107
Lincoln5525136
George510180
Prentiss500884
Tippah490282
Itawamba4829107
Scott477499
Adams4766125
Tate4748116
Leflore4723144
Copiah455895
Yazoo455591
Simpson4543117
Wayne442772
Covington432895
Sunflower4299106
Marion4265112
Coahoma4227109
Leake413790
Newton395581
Tishomingo381793
Grenada3775109
Stone365666
Jasper340166
Attala337790
Winston317792
Chickasaw313367
Clay311878
Clarke301195
Calhoun284449
Holmes271289
Smith268952
Yalobusha243747
Tallahatchie231453
Greene224749
Walthall221366
Lawrence217840
Perry213356
Amite209557
Webster205148
Noxubee188642
Montgomery181557
Carroll174441
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152639
Kemper144941
Choctaw136527
Claiborne134238
Humphreys131139
Franklin124929
Quitman107528
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96834
Sharkey65121
Issaquena1957
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 844951

Reported Deaths: 16115
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1161002006
Mobile741871379
Madison53279732
Shelby38325368
Baldwin38068589
Tuscaloosa36009641
Montgomery34482781
Lee25550263
Calhoun22585518
Morgan22451406
Etowah20013517
Marshall18777316
Houston17727425
St. Clair16875358
Limestone16135218
Cullman16044303
Elmore15904294
Lauderdale14968306
Talladega14189299
DeKalb12967269
Walker12020380
Blount10714192
Autauga10517157
Jackson10157194
Coffee9414192
Colbert9334208
Dale9018191
Tallapoosa7254201
Russell707765
Chilton7018170
Escambia6955143
Covington6932195
Franklin6340108
Chambers5783142
Marion5401130
Dallas5285209
Pike5118109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4780110
Geneva4642136
Bibb434094
Barbour369480
Butler3434100
Marengo342393
Monroe337066
Randolph334367
Pickens333188
Fayette330085
Henry320666
Hale318189
Cherokee317563
Crenshaw260477
Washington256952
Cleburne254460
Lamar251253
Clay250869
Macon244764
Conecuh192762
Coosa184947
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152645
Perry141840
Sumter139241
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
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