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Professional athletes lead the way on vaccinations

With many sports teams boasting vaccination rates of 90% or more, players are using their platforms to advocate for the COVID-19 vaccines.

By Ken Budd

At his annual summer youth camp in Gates Mills, Ohio, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield made a bold statement about COVID-19 vaccines and gridiron success. High vaccination rates wouldn’t simply protect his teammates from contracting the coronavirus, he told reporters. It would help the Browns win games.

“It definitely poses a competitive advantage for higher vaccine rates on your team, just because of the close contact rates and what happens if somebody does unfortunately get COVID and what can happen to the rest of the building,” Mayfield said, calling to mind the many missed practices and games of last season. “But it’s also way more than that. It’s about safety and general health and well-being of human life.” For instance, vaccinated players can share meals and gym time, and can freely see family and friends after travel — all contributors to team morale.

Like Mayfield, some pro athletes have become role models not by throwing touchdown passes, hitting home runs, or swishing jump shots, but by getting vaccinated. In March, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan recorded an interview with Emory University infectious disease specialist Zanthia Wiley, MD, promoting the vaccines. In April, four members of the Milwaukee Brewers — Keston Hiura, Freddy Peralta, Brent Suter, and Christian Yelich — appeared in a public service announcement touting the vaccines. Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera promoted vaccinations by becoming co-chair of the Protect Michigan Commission, while a USA Today op-ed declared that Browns defensive end Myles Garrett “may be the NFL’s best COVID-19 vaccine advocate.” Garrett contracted the virus in 2020 as did his father, mother, and great-grandmother; his great-grandmother ultimately died from COVID-19.

Former players have also become advocates. Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell appeared in a YouTube video getting his vaccine (“This is one shot I won’t block,” he said) and hoops Hall of Famer Charles Barkley spoke at a vaccination drive in his native Alabama. “You don’t get the vaccination just for yourself, you get it for the people around you,” Barkley told the crowd.

Of course, not every player is vaccinated — and a few have been vocally opposed. In June, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley tweeted that he would retire before he would get a COVID-19 shot. And unvaccinated Washington Wizards all-star Bradley Beal — who missed the Tokyo Olympics after contracting COVID-19 — challenged the efficacy of the vaccines while speaking with reporters.

Overall, vaccination rates are high among U.S. sports leagues. As of October 21, 94.1% of NFL players were vaccinated and at least two franchises — the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — had hit the 100% mark, the NFL’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills, told Bloomberg. Major League Soccer and the NBA both have 95% vaccination rates, the WNBA has an impressive 99% vaccination rate among its players, and when the NHL opened its season in October, only four players were unvaccinated.

In Cleveland, the Browns are a vaccination success story. One hundred percent of staff members are vaccinated, and while the team won’t reveal current rates among players, over 90% of players received at least their first shot back in July. For insights on the team’s off-the-field, in-the-arm triumphs, the VaccineVoices spoke with Sean Cupp, MD, lead medical physician for the Browns and co-director of sports medicine at University Hospitals (UH) Cleveland Medical Center. Cupp is also an assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

How did the Browns successfully encourage staff and players to get vaccinated?

The NFL, including the NFL Physicians Society, and the Browns’ medical director put together a really good plan to educate players about the vaccines and provide resources. Here at UH, we provided our infectious disease experts [to the team] along with some of our lead primary care providers who run health clinics and pretty much spend all day educating their patients about this. We at UH provided this to the team in multiple education sessions. The NFL has provided additional resources from across the country for teams who may not have access like we have here in Cleveland with our excellent UH specialists.

What types of resources were provided to players?

There were sessions with the players and staff — kind of questions and answers. What we used here was a quick session with a specialist, and the specialist shared bullet points about the safety of the vaccines, why we’re using them, why we’re recommending them. And then we took questions from the players, and [physicians] made themselves available if the player wanted to make a personal phone call. We also had similar sessions available for family members of players and staff. The league provided similar educational sessions on video that were available to every team and every player to review.

What were the most common concerns among players?

I think the players’ concerns mirrored what we were seeing in the population. There was a lot of concern … about the safety of the vaccines. And there’s always the concern of potential side effects.

Misinformation has been a big problem in this country. Has it been a problem in the locker room?

The infectious disease experts and primary care physicians who are community health experts provided information and education to help our players understand what is factual and what is misinformation. I think this helped greatly to curb some of the fears and concerns.

Will unvaccinated players endure stiffer protocols?

Last year, all the players, all the staff, we had to be tested daily. Every player had to be tested every day of the season. I had to be tested every day of the season. I was tested daily from the third week of July through the second week of January. We have a protocol for high-risk close contact. With this 2021 season, our protocol was adjusted. Those who have had the vaccines only have to be tested once a week. The non-vaccinated player still has to follow the same protocols that were in place last year. So one might interpret that there is an advantage for the vaccinated player not to have to go through the same rigorous activities that everyone was required to last year, and potentially have more time to spend on themselves, on their family, or on preparation for their profession.

What do you say when players ask you about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines?

I have been approached by players and I share with them the information that the CDC has prepared, and similar information that we have through our hospital, to educate them on the safety of the vaccines, the reasons why we use them, and to answer any questions about their personal health issues or family issues about why they consider not getting the vaccines.

Do some players see themselves as role models for the public?

I believe many of our players understand their role in society that yes, they are role models, whether it’s finishing your education, whether it’s being a good productive citizen, whether it’s helping your communities. They probably incorporate their feelings of public health into that same category.

Caption: Cleveland Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett has been a big proponent of the COVID-19 vaccines, especially after the virus sickened his family members. Courtesy of the Cleveland Browns 

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