The report was widely circulated. Premier League players have shared the link with their peers. Some have passed it on to relatives and close friends. A few were bothered by what the text seemed to suggest they referred to the medical teams of their clubs for advice.
The work was produced by a website that says it tracks “the number of young athletes with serious medical problems in 2021 after receiving one or more doses of the Covid-19 vaccine”.
The report stated that 19 “athletes” – most of them in the United States – said they had had heart attacks after receiving the vaccine. And some of the attacks, as grimly stated in the text, were fatal.
Almost immediately, clinicians and other observers noted glaring flaws in the research. One example cited was Hank Aaron, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, who died in January. He was 86 years old. Another name on the list is a retired NBA player, aged 64. A baseline study showed that many of the younger athletes identified in the text had pre-existing health problems.
But that didn’t make a difference. Also, the fact that the report was later conclusively proven wrong. The study led soccer players to question whether or not they should accept a vaccination. The damage occurred, according to experts.
The past few weeks have not been easy for the Premier League, which is seeing a spike in virus cases, a slew of match postponements and calls from within the organization for a temporary break in the season.
The problems have led the organization’s poor vaccination record to be closely scrutinized, and have raised questions about why the world’s richest football league has so much trouble convincing its stars to get vaccinated.
On the one hand, the league and teams have been a huge success: the Premier League has released figures indicating that 84% of its players are making the “vaccination journey”, which means they have received at least one of the three possible doses since vaccinations began in the second trimester. . However, the remaining 16% – about 100 players – became a cause for concern.
Six of the 10 Premier League matches that were supposed to play last weekend were postponed after clubs were hit by the Covid outbreak. At least one of them could have been postponed not because of a series of positive tests among players, but because some unvaccinated players were adhering to isolation regulations, as required by British law, after being identified as having been in close contact with infected people.
The missed weekend highlights the Premier League’s problems keeping vaccination numbers in sync with those of other major European leagues and with other major sporting leagues on the planet.
98% of Serie A players in Italian football have been vaccinated. In France it is 95% and in Germany it is 94% – figures comparable to the NFL, NBA and NHL in North America. Spanish football authorities stated that given vaccination and naturally acquired immunity, 97% of the country’s players are protected. The comparison with England is blunt: in the Premier League, only 77% of players received two doses of the vaccine.
It is not easy to determine the reason for this difference. The New York Times spoke with a number of players, consultants, CEOs, managers and members of the medical staff, most of whom agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss personal health issues. The interviews paint a complex and primitive picture of why indecision about vaccines has been allowed to advance so far in the richest soccer league on the planet.
“It’s hard to find a single reason,” said Mahita Mulango, head of the British Professional Footballers’ Association. “You have to assess the situation on a case-by-case basis, really.”
To be sure, the concern about potential side effects is great. A string of recent high-profile incidents involving players who suffered from heart problems on the field – including Christian Eriksen, the Danish midfielder who collapsed during the UEFA Cup mid-year match, and Sergio Aguero, the striker who had just retired from Barcelona – has fueled the suspicions of some Players about vaccinations.
Eriksen had not yet been vaccinated when he collapsed on the field during the Euro match in June, which made little difference.
But accidents involving other athletes are not the only source of suspicion. According to New York Times reports, many gamers expressed concern that the vaccine would reduce their sperm count, and some doctors said they answered questions about their links with loss of manhood, especially after singer Nicki Minaj tweeted that a friend of hers had “swollen testicles.” After vaccination. (Both theories do not hold.)
Mulango noted that some players may have “religious concerns” as well. Earlier this year, the Players’ Association and the Premier League staged a lecture by Jonathan Van Tam, the UK’s deputy head of national health – who regularly uses football metaphors in his public speeches – to the leaders of the league’s 20 clubs, in an effort to help him. To convince more players to get vaccinated.
He was asked during the meeting whether it was true that the vaccine contained alcohol – a concern of Muslim players. He confirmed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine does not contain alcohol, but acknowledged that other vaccines could contain traces of the substance. However, the quantities were so small that, he told the players, “the bread I had this morning probably contained more alcohol.”
Mulango said others “questioned the credibility” of those who encouraged them to receive the vaccine. Some players also stated that it was considered safe for them to return to work last year, before vaccines were developed, and that they would not accept being instructed now to get vaccinations in order to continue playing.
In some cases, this has crystallized in the form of relentless opposition: an ideological refusal to receive the vaccine. But club officials said most players are hesitant about the vaccine, which he opposes. They tend to believe that, as healthy young adults, they would not have problems even if they contracted the virus, and therefore they do not need to take any risks that vaccines may or may not cause. Their bodies are their livelihood, after all, and many have told members of their teams’ medical teams that they will not accept any categorically unsafe substance.
The Premier League claims it has done its best to persuade players to accept the vaccination. Not only did Van Tam speak with the league’s club leaders, but he also released a video highlighting the importance of vaccination and debunking the myths around it, to reinforce the message. Other clubs, struggling to impress players still resistant to vaccination, have made offers of visiting experts to answer questions and allay the fears of footballers.
Internal procedures have also become stricter. At least one Premier League club is no longer allowing unvaccinated players to dine with their teammates, asking them to change to train before arriving at the training centre, or in their cars. The Premier League is now considering adapting its protocols to popularize the use of these precautions.
The hope, among those responsible for keeping players safe, is that a more active and intense pose will be crucial to the majority of players still resistant to vaccination, except for the most extreme. Until that happens, all the league can do is try to counter the misinformation, convince people to change their minds, and hope the games can continue.
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