Hi everyone. Extremely unpredictably timed newsletter incoming. Have a great week!
In the early 1990s, Lyle Alzado was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. A former All-Pro defensive end, Alzado had used anabolic steroids throughout his career and had actually advocated for the drugs. He thought they should be legal and touted their benefits. But once he got sick, his perspective did a complete 180. In interviews, he began to take a new stance on the drugs: steroids, he said, caused his cancer.
This was front-page news, repeated during his illness and after his death. His speculation mutated until it was stated as truth—but no thorough medical literature supported the claim. In fact, nearly 30 years later, there’s still no conclusive scientific evidence that what Alzado said was true. But his story has become a PSA for playing clean—in large part because journalists printed and parrotted it so many times, over so many years, despite its factual holes.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Alzado as I’ve seen quote after quote from unvaccinated athletes stating the reasons they distrust the shot that would give them immunity against the coronavirus. I’ve been thinking about the ripple effects of his claim, how media gave credence to his story and other misinformation about steroids that likely influenced legislation around the drugs. I learned about all of this while reporting my podcast on baseball’s steroid era, and I was shocked at how one sensational nugget of misplaced belief blew up into something bigger. And that made me worry: Are we covering athletes’ decisions to get vaccinated—or, more troublingly, to abstain—all wrong?
Now, I should be clear: these situations aren’t perfectly parallel. There are few downsides to deterring people from taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs, even if deterrence is based on a myth. But giving someone pause about taking a vaccine? That’s dangerous. On the other hand, I don’t think that the story of one athlete’s vaccine hesitancy will lead to a widespread, false narrative about inoculations that persists for years, like Alzado’s steroid commentary has. But an athlete’s words might sway some people to make a bad choice at a time when every vaccination matters, and in that, sports media is culpable.
We helped transform athletes into role models (like it or not), men and women whose decisions and behavior hold weight with fans. On top of that, our work gives them a platform. But that platform doesn’t have to be for anything and everything. It doesn’t have to include uninformed takes about vaccines, said by them and spit back out by us, unfiltered and unvetted.
The problem lies with the system, the industry, and its values, not any one writer or pundit. And by and large, across the vast expanse of the web, coverage hasn’t been responsible enough. NFL receiver Cole Beasley’s two-screenshot missive has been blasted to the farthest reaches of the Internet, by plenty of reputable news sources. Cubs starter Jake Arrieta’s unscientific yammering has been printed next to Kris Bryant’s reasoned words on why he was vaccinated, as if each man’s words might carry equal weight.
And look, I understand why. Bad vaccine takes are perfect fodder for a buzzy tweet—the more outlandish, the better—or a story that’ll go viral for an hour or two or 10. Quotes are aggregated and stylized into eye-catching Instagram posts. Thousands of likes and shares follow, and in the sports media hellscape of 2021, that’s valuable currency. Also: Most beat writers are discouraged from any kind of editorializing, which makes it tricky to push back on an athlete’s incorrect claims about the vaccine in a news story.
So we get Beasley and Arrieta. We get Sam Darnold and Montez Sweat at NFL minicamps, telling reporters they won’t get shots until they get more information about the vaccine. Sweat’s words came right after the Washington Football Team brought in a vaccine expert to speak to players, but no matter. Let’s air them as if he’s really hunting for some nugget of science that would persuade him, rather than consider he has access to better information than most. Instead of printing quotes, giving their words legs to sprint across the Internet, we should write that these men have declined to follow their employers’ advice—and the CDC’s—that they remain unvaccinated, that they shared opinions unworthy of print. It’s as simple as that: no editorializing or opining, facts instead of misinformed perspectives.
Not sharing problematic takes about vaccines from people who have no more medical expertise than the average man on the street—that isn’t censorship or muzzling. It’s just responsible journalism. Over the past few weeks, I’ve dug into a bit of media theory to make sure I’m not totally off-base, and one of the most valuable things I read was a 2017 paper by journalist Craig Silverman, who’s studied online rumors and fake news extensively. Silverman writes that “news organizations should move to occupy the middle ground between mindless propagation and wordless restraint,” and that, to me, is the crux of all of this, the goal for writing about the unending COVID news cycle.
On Friday, Jemele Hill wrote a great column for The Atlantic about athletes’ privacy when it comes to their vaccination status. She argues that journalists and fans have a right to ask, and to know, whether players are inoculated, and I agree. It’s not identifying unvaccinated athletes that’s the problem; it’s sending their words out into the viral void. And at the end of the column, Hill writes that for unvaccinated players, “ignorance is far too alluring.” That’s all this is: a willful lack of knowledge. Let’s stop spreading it.
Quotes about athletes declining the vaccine, without context, are mindless propagation. We need to move down the spectrum, from pure transcription to context, from printing uneducated opinions to deciding which statements about vaccine hesitancy might add to the conversation and which are likely to do harm. And restraint? Well, I’m beginning to wonder if we need more of that.