Covid-19 Disruption of Sport and Vaccine Scepticism Among Athletes

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The impact of vaccine hesitancy and refusal by sports people is causing ripple effects across the industry. Ronán Daly investigates.

The Christmas and January 2022 period has seen considerable disruption to the English Premier League as teams have had to postpone several games due to Covid-19 outbreaks within squads. However, the main issue in England is not massive outbreaks in squads, it’s the fact that when players test positive for Covid, the unvaccinated players within squads must isolate for 7 days whereas vaccinated players who test negative do not. This has led to squads with large numbers of unvaccinated players having 10 players out over 2 or 3 cases over the need to isolate, hence the postponement of fixtures. 

The current situation in English football has highlighted a seemingly disproportionate scepticism of the vaccine in England compared to the other top leagues in Europe. In December, the BBC reported that of the 72 clubs in the English Football League (EFL), 31% of players were yet to receive their first dose and 25% had no intention of getting vaccinated. The Premier League reported that only 77% of players were fully vaccinated and 16% had not received a single dose. While other leagues like the Bundesliga and Serie A do have winter breaks, they didn’t see any games postponed over the winter period, probably no surprise as those leagues have much higher vaccination rates. Italy’s Serie A boasts a 98% vaccination rate while both the German Bundesliga and Spanish La Liga have about 92-94% vaccination rates. 

One of the more high-profile cases of this sentiment in the English leagues is Ireland and West Brom player Callum Robinson who made headlines after missing Ireland's World Cup qualifiers in August before admitting in October that he had not been vaccinated. Obviously, this isn’t limited to football, in the NFL Green Bay Packers Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, came under fire for misleading comments about being ‘Immunised’, later revealing he wasn’t vaccinated and in the NBA Brooklyn Nets star, Kyrie Irving, has doubled down on his decision not to get vaccinated multiple times which has prevented him from playing home games

The situation in England has reached the stage now where many are becoming increasingly frustrated with teams trying to postpone games due to one or two cases within their camps with many saying teams should field weaker teams. Gary Neville criticised Arsenal’s decision to postpone their game with Spurs, claiming teams were “calling off games based on if they have their best squad or not”, while Leeds and their manager, Marcelo Bielsa, were praised for naming a bench of teenagers in their 3-2 win over West Ham on the same day. The Confederation of African Football probably took the most hardliner approach to this for the AFCON where as long as a team has 11 players they must field them, even if that means an outfield player must go in goals. 

One area of concern for some footballers around the vaccine is the increased risk of myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, after receiving the vaccine. Those who are sceptic of it have used the examples of Denmark midfielder Cristian Eriksen who collapsed during his countries Euro 2020 game with Finland, however it was later revealed he had not received the vaccine at that stage, and Man City legend, Sergio Aguero, who was forced to retire due cardiac arrhythmia. While Aguero had received the vaccine the Argentine’s cardiologist ruled out the vaccine as a possible reason for his heart issues. A study by Oxford university researcher did find an increased chance of myocarditis from those who received the vaccine, about 1 to 10 in every million however the chance of developing the same condition is about 40 in every million from contracting covid-19, so even if there is an increased risk the chances of developing heart issues they are much smaller from the vaccine than from catching covid unprotected. 

And just because these are elite level athletes it doesn’t mean they are immune to the worst effects of covid as some would have you believe. Bayern Munich player Alphonso Davies now faces a period on the side-lines after developing mild myocarditis having been infected with covid over the winter break. While the Canadian should make a full recovery it shows no one is immune to the worst effects of the virus. Davies’ Bayern teammate, Joshua Kimmich, was another player to suffer some of the worse effects of covid as the German midfielder admitted his regret at not being vaccinated when he missed the majority of the Bundesliga title holders Christmas fixtures due a lung issue he developed as a result of infection. Of course, players are free to be vaccinated or not but their scepticism of vaccines and their belief that because they are active and healthy that they are better off being infected to build a natural immunity to Covid is clearly misplaced, especially among those in the English leagues. 

Another aspect of the current wave of Covid’s effect on sports is attendances at matches. In Scotland, the SPFL was forced into an early winter break and spectators were not allowed into grounds to support their teams during the Boxing Day fixtures. Those restrictions were lifted on the 17th of January with Celtic's match with Hibs being the first to be played in front of a full crowd since the return of Scottish football. The only caveat for full capacity in sports grounds is that 50% or 1,000 people, whichever is higher, must be checked upon entry to grounds. This is something that the Irish government will surely be considering coming into February. 

Current restrictions in Ireland limit attendances to 50% or 5,000 people, whichever is lower and with the Six Nations, Allianz GAA football and Hurling leagues and the League of Ireland all beginning in the coming weeks, the government will have to consider whether to allow full capacity at sports events. It’s already being reported that the government is planning on reducing restrictions in the coming weeks with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar hoping to have all restrictions lifted by the end of March. With Covid numbers coming down and with over 50% of the population having received their booster vaccines we should hopefully see full capacity in grounds.