LOS ANGELES ( Associated Press) — A saga of the pandemic Tennis star Novak Djokovic in Australia this week is but one of many: Pro athletes who have refused vaccinations have been put on center court in a major competition – as do famous faces that are sweeping the world. Proxies are becoming players in an increasingly cultural battle. Jobs
NBA’s Kyrie Irving Misses Brooklyn Nets’ First Months of Season Before making a partial refund. The NFL’s Aaron Rodgers Goes From Revered Veteran To Polarizing Figure, And we are still not finished with the diplomatic standoff and Djokovic being exempted from playing at the Australian Open.
It is a cultural issue, not a question of numbers. The vast majority of players in professional sports organizations are vaccinated – more than the US population at large – and silently or implicitly accept the evidence of their safety and efficacy. But a handful of high-profile objections represent a new frontier in what one expert calls the “bigger role of sport” in society’s discourse.
“We look to sport as an answer or to clarify issues in the larger culture,” says Robert T. Hayashi. An associate professor of American Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts whose specialties include the history of the sport. “Many times, the most detailed conversations we see in culture and in the media are in relation to sports.”
Their centrality is not necessarily because they are extraordinary, but because they serve as embodiments for all of us.
“They’re all different individuals. They have different perspectives,” says Dan Leibovitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. at Northeastern University. “Athletes,” he says, “are not really separate from the whole of humanity.”
And in that sense, they are subject to the same information and misinformation – the same receptivity or persistence – as the rest of the population.
“We live in a world where we have drifted really far from a central set of facts,” Leibovitz says. “None of these athletes are impervious to all the information coming to them around the world, or to the divisions we have.”
While figures like Irving, Rodgers and Djokovic are at the center of the conversation, they may not actually be driving it. COVID vaccines, in their brief existence, have been fast-tracked into an elite set of divisive political and cultural issues – things about which people choose a side and stick to it, no matter what.
Mark Harvey, professor at St. Mary’s University in Kansas and author of “The Celebrity Effect: Politics, Persuasion, and Problem-Based Advocacy.” It is said that these are subjects on which famous people may actually have the least influence.
“The kind of issues they’re not really impressive about are traditional wedge issues,” says Harvey. “Celebrities aren’t really going to change anyone’s view on abortion or guns. For most people, it’s become part of a problem.”
Well-known voices then become something else – amplification tools, opinions used more as actual agents of influence than as fodder for existing arguments.
“People who have some belief that they want to move forward … they’re going to hold on to these athletes as spokespersons for their cause,” says Leibovitz.
That doesn’t mean that famous voices have no real influence, though. Harvey says a celebrity’s personal connection to an issue matters — and can garner attention.
For example: “Today” show host Katie Couric got a colonoscopy in the air after her husband died of colon cancer in 2000, and the number of such procedures saw a huge increase in the coming months. And Elton John is speaking out to LGBTQ communities – particularly about LGBTQ issues – himself to be heard more than anyone else.
By the same logic, dedicated fans of a team like the Green Bay Packers may be more likely to hear vaccinations from a local player like Rodgers. And the opinions of black athletes may be gaining more traction in African-American communities, especially when tapping into the history of medical abuse.
“With memories of the Tuskegee experiments, they may feel a lack of trust and forced sterilization for women of color,” Hayashi says. “These situations don’t remove those identities.”
Given his role in 20th-century European conflicts, Djokovic’s stance may similarly resonate in the Serbian athlete’s home country.
“For Djokovic, the Serbian community with his role in Europe and how he has been presented as bad guys, he can certainly become a national pride for some,” Hayashi says.
While sport has always been inseparable from politics and public conflicts, a major change has occurred in the years since Michael Jordan made public neutrality an essential part of his brand on all non-sporting issues. There is almost hope of advocacy today, especially because of the precedent set by Colin Kaepernick’s protests and the embrace of Black Lives Matter by many athletes.
“We expect an awful lot out of them,” Leibovitz says. “We ask them to heal the hate and hurt. And now we expect them to do better in terms of public health.”
These hopes were heightened through the cultural crucible of the Trump era, which Harvey says was “defined by celebrity advocacy” under a president who – himself – as businessman, reality-TV star and general high-profile figure. – Celebrities used to help create the perception of the voice in An American Bully Pulpit in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
“I think the moral of the story that celebrities are learning is where you have to take a side,” says Harvey. “Nowadays, if you don’t take a side, people don’t think you don’t have a backbone.”
And while athletes don’t necessarily feel the pressure, they may once have to constantly think about the children they’re affecting, hoping to remain a role model for the youth embedded in the culture – as it does in the oldest years. From more than a century ago sporting mega-celebrities like Babe Ruth.
“We see a lot of things in society, sports are the crucible for shaping youth and some of the ideas we value are sacrifice and effort and goal orientation, working hard and learning to set goals, this shape youth and morals. Be the giver,” Hayashi says. “I get such a perverse laugh that we turn to figures like this for the sake of it. You can’t get it from being a disciplined violinist or artist or writer?”
Follow Los Angeles-based Associated Press Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton