Opinion: COVID-19 truthers in sports like Michael Porter Jr. undermine leagues’ restart successesJuly 29, 2020
Michael Porter Jr.’s misadventure on Snapchat Tuesday, in which the Denver Nuggets forward revealed himself to be both an anti-vaxxer and remarkably ignorant conspiracy theorist, is no laughing matter.
In dismissing a pandemic that has already killed over 150,000 Americans as “overblown” and “being used for population control,” the 22-year old voiced not only a stunning lack of concern about a health crisis that has touched everyone in some way but also highlighted an information and media literacy problem that has genuinely hurt the country’s ability to solve the problem.
It should also be a warning for sports leagues trying to return under these difficult conditions: There are COVID-19 truthers in your midst, and their skepticism about the seriousness of the virus might pose the biggest risk of all to their success.
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Denver Nuggets Forward Michael Porter Jr. warms up prior to a game. (Photo: Erik Williams, USA TODAY Sports)
Safely ensconced in the NBA bubble, it’s less likely that Porter’s conspiracy nonsense can do any real damage other than to the image of the league. But if sports are a reflection of society, it’s a virtual guarantee that as you extrapolate through non-bubbled leagues like MLB, the NFL and college football, there are probably at least one or two people in every locker room who aren’t going to comply with mask-wearing or social distancing when they’re off the clock because they simply don’t believe this is a big deal.
Earlier Tuesday, in fact, the Arizona Daily Star reported that offensive lineman Edgar Burrola was suspended from the University of Arizona football team and his scholarship reduced because he resisted safety protocols.
“If you're not gonna pay attention to the protocol, wear a mask, all that stuff, we just can’t have you around,” coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Looking through Burrola’s Twitter feed, it’s no surprise that Arizona’s safety protocols caused friction. Though a May 30 tweet that said “COVID-19 is fake” was apparently deleted from his account, according to the Daily Star, his account is a font of right-wing memes, misinformation and debunked conspiracy theory topics ranging from Bill Gates to Walt Disney to Pizzagate to Jeffrey Epstein. In fact, on July 21, Burrola tweeted: “I still don’t believe Epstein is dead. El Chapo escaped prison in his country, you think Epstein can’t?”
Pointing this stuff out isn't intended to shame a young man who, like millions of others, has been drawn into a fever swamp of lies that are propagated on the Internet. But so much of this willingness to buy into easily disprovable conspiracies is connected to the fact that a way-too-large segment of society just won't take COVID-19 seriously and are contributing to the spread of the virus.
And they’re all over sports.
Which brings to mind, we haven't heard much lately from Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 tennis player in the world. But before he fell ill himself with COVID-19, he was a frequent presence on Instagram Live and talked multiple times with Chervin Jafarieh, a self-described “wellness guru” who was able to use a 17-time Grand Slam champion to promote products from his website and push ridiculous pseudoscience like the molecular structure of water being changed by positive thinking.
Djokovic, who also revealed he was opposed to compulsory COVID-19 vaccination in order to be able to travel on the tennis tour, clearly didn't take the virus seriously. His Adria Tour series of exhibition matches looked like they were being held in a pre-coronavirus world, with no visible safety precautions and stands full of fans. At night, players posted pictures and video clips on social media of themselves partying and hugging and playing pickup basketball games.
Three other players, some staff and Djokovic’s wife Jelena all came out of the event testing positive and one of them, Grigor Dimitrov, revealed recently that the virus made him very sick and that he was still fighting some fatigue.
Sadly, the list of COVID-19 truthers in sports is getting longer. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Da'Shawn Hand shared a video on Instagram with 300,000 views that claims the number of deaths isn't real and claims that coronavirus is simply a ruse to cover up a world economic crash. Lakers center Dwight Howard said recently on Instagram Live that he's opposed to vaccinations. Jack Del Rio, the defensive coordinator of the Washington football team, endorsed a video subsequently taken down by Twitter due to misleading COVID-19 claims made by Houston doctor Stella Immanuel, who has also blamed certain medical conditions on having dream sex with demons.
It’s clear that misinformation is going to continue to be a major challenge for sports.
When college football players came back to campus in June, one of the reasons you saw some outbreaks at places like Kansas State and LSU is because players didn’t take it seriously enough and went to parties or bars where they got sick and then spread it to teammates. Those experiences scared a lot of people straight, given the consequences of being isolated for two weeks even with a mild case.
If and when a vaccine for COVID-19 is distributed, there is going to be a legitimate conversation to be had about whether it should be compulsory for playing sports or traveling across borders, particularly given the record speed at which the world is hoping to develop this vaccine.
But for now, anti-vaxxers are a secondary issue to how many players spending time in a baseball clubhouse or an NFL locker room or a college dorm think the same way as Porter, that this is totally overblown (it isn’t) and that the mask-wearing is for population control rather than protection (it’s really not). And how big of a risk does that pose in an environment where players are basically going to be free to do as they please when they go home?
With COVID-19 so prevalent in America, there is nothing that is completely risk-free. People might do everything right and still contract the virus inadvertently and spread it in a locker room.
But athletes whose reckless behavior is motivated by the idea this is all a hoax are putting themselves, their teammates and the rest of us at risk. And when they use their platform and notoriety to promote those dangerous opinions on social media, they need to be called out for it or else we have little hope of getting to the other side of this pandemic anytime soon.
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