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Why Novak Djokovic's COVID vaccine status sparked so much debate

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Vaccine policies, quarantines, testing - so many hurdles for athletes to conquer if they want to participate in sporting events in COVID times. We saw that play out with No. 1-ranked player in the men's tennis, Novak Djokovic. The unvaccinated Wimbledon champ has been deported from Australia just ahead of the Australian Open after losing his legal fight to stay and compete. I spoke earlier with Jeremy Schaap. He's the host of ESPN's "Outside The Lines." And he told me why the vaccine status of Djokovic sparked so much debate.

JEREMY SCHAAP: There are other factors at work when we're talking about Novak Djokovic because he's not just an athlete who hasn't been vaccinated. He's an athlete who has been anti-vaccine. He is also someone who, a couple of years ago at the beginning of the pandemic, organized a series of events in - I think it was Serbia and Croatia - tennis events at a time when much of the world was locking down, for which they were widely criticized at the time. And a lot of people ended up getting infected. So it's not only his status being unvaccinated. It's also his history here, as well.

MARTINEZ: Now, Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal has been very vocal with the situation around Novak Djokovic. Nadal clearly supports vaccination. And he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAEL NADAL: (Through interpreter) It's sports. Many interests move around it on a general level, at an economic advertising level. Everything is much better when the best can be playing.

MARTINEZ: So he has a point there. There are economic consequences without the biggest players in the tournament, Djokovic is the world's No. 1-ranked male player. So how far, Jeremy, can these sports, leagues and these tours go in pushing vaccines? How far should they go?

SCHAAP: Well, if you're asking me personally, I'm someone who happens to be in favor of mandates. It gets more complicated in the major sports leagues because everything - and it's not just sports leagues. There are other organizations, other institutions where this is the case, where it's a negotiation - right? - with the players, with the athletes themselves. And the players' associations, for the most part, if not all of them, have opposed what we would call a mandate.

At the same time, you know, while we talk about some of the high-profile athletes who have refused to be vaccinated - Aaron Rodgers, Kyrie Irving, Novak Djokovic - and the message that sends, if you look at the overall numbers for professional athletes, they're much better than society at large. And they've achieved these figures without mandates. You know, you could call them all but mandates because they have tried in various ways to make it difficult, onerous for the unvaccinated to go about doing their jobs. But if you look at the numbers, the WNBA and the NHL are almost 100% vaccinated. Maybe it's 99%-plus. The NFL is around 94%. The NBA, I think, is around 97%. Major League Baseball at the end of last season - so we're talking three months ago - was 88%.

MARTINEZ: But, you know, when I think about the names you mentioned - Djokovic, Aaron Rodgers, Kyrie Irving - these are the biggest names in their respective sports. They make the most money. They have the most influence. The rest of the leagues - it's almost as if the average, run-of-the-mill athlete can't really resist these calls to get vaccinated. It takes a superstar and their status to be able to resist at all.

SCHAAP: I think that's a fair point. Clearly, you know, you have more power if you were one of the top athletes in the sport. But clearly, many of the biggest stars are vaccinated and had made the decision to be vaccinated. LeBron James, for instance, is vaccinated. But he's also an interesting example because while he is fully vaccinated, he's expressed vaccine skepticism, and he's declined to use his platform to advocate for others to be vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: So on that, on platforms and messaging, you know, I think back - and I'm sure you'll remember this, Jeremy - the 1993 Nike ad - Charles Barkley - I am not a role model. He, in that ad, made it clear that athletes should not be role models, that parents and others should be role models for kids. What kind of responsibility do you think athletes have with this? What kind of messages should they be sending out or maybe not be sending out?

SCHAAP: Look. I understand elements of what Charles was saying, but he's wrong. I mean, you can make the case, you know, athletes shouldn't be role models, but they are. And they have huge platforms. And especially in recent years, many athletes have been using those platforms effectively in important ways to send important messages and fight for important causes. I would argue that this is a moment that demands the same from high-profile athletes. And I think what we're seeing, you know, the anger with Djokovic, the anger with Aaron Rodgers, the anger with Kyrie Irving, reflects these larger tensions in society, as well - right? - between people who are vaccinated and want everybody to be vaccinated and people who say, I don't care what you say. I don't care what the science says. I'm not doing it.

MARTINEZ: Jeremy, do you think there are any sports leagues, team owners, anyone in a management position that has done a good job approaching vaccines in the pandemic?

SCHAAP: I think one example that really stands out - the National Hockey League and the WNBA. I think they're both over 99% in terms of their players being vaccinated. So I think you have to give those organizations credit. And in the WNBA, it's interesting. The commissioner of the league and the head of the players association got together, and they said, you know, what are we going to do here instead of it being an adversarial type thing? And the players association took on the role of education, of answering questions about the vaccine. And the results have been stunning.

MARTINEZ: Jeremy, if the coronavirus winds up being something that is not eradicated - it becomes endemic, something that we all have to live with in this world. And, obviously, then, the sports world will have to do it, too. Will athletes and teams just deal with it?

SCHAAP: I think so. You know, our first moment at which the point was really driven home that we're in this, and we're in this deep was that night - I think it was March 11, 2020 - the Jazz-Thunder game in Oklahoma City and Rudy Gobert and emptying out the stadium. And that was a siren that life is changing and will be changing. But within a few months, team sports were back, which I would not have expected at that time. They will find ways to adapt. They will find ways to get back on the field. I think they will find a way.

MARTINEZ: That's Jeremy Schaap, host of ESPN's "Outside The Lines." Jeremy, thank you.

SCHAAP: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURPRISE CHEF'S "D.A. STAB WOUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.