In less dangerous times, a more forgiving audience viewed Novak Djokovic’s non-traditional views on science and health as the original characteristics of a hyperactive researcher with entrenched beliefs in everything from sports to spirituality.
He sat in a pressurized egg-shaped capsule at major tournaments, believing it would improve circulation, increase his red blood cell production, and rid his muscles of lactic acid. He supported the idea that prayer and faith could purify toxic water. Djokovic and other top athletes with unorthodox approaches to health have been a source of perplexity to an audience who, for better or for worse, have long treated them as role models. Those oddities as seemingly harmless as a bowl of quarterback Tom Brady’s avocado ice cream.
Djokovic, an outspoken vaccine skeptic, will spend the weekend detained in a hotel room in Melbourne, Australia, awaiting a legal appeal and a hearing due on Monday in hopes of entering the country over a public and political outcry over the medical exemption he received for playing at the Australian Open without being vaccinated. Australian Border Force rejected his papers supporting this exemption on Wednesday.
The pitched battle over what was supposed to be his quest for a record 10th Australian Championship in men’s singles has highlighted new momentum for stars like Djokovic. The latest wave of coronavirus cases and the continuing struggle to emerge from the pandemic have changed public perceptions: Athletes once viewed favorably as iconoclasts now face a setback when they want to play by different rules than everyone else. the world.
“The general public continues to respond positively if an athlete speaks out on topics that make a difference in society and improve people’s lives,” said Michael Lynch, former director of sports marketing for Visa and longtime consultant for the sports industry. “But if someone takes a position that puts people’s lives in danger, then they’re going to have a very negative reaction.”
The fame that comes with athletic success has provided Djokovic and other top athletes who oppose coronavirus vaccines, such as NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and star basketball player Kyrie Irving, with platforms to promote causes they believe in and raise millions of dollars to promote products. But in recent months, their high profile has become a handicap as their behavior and opinions have supported disinformation and endangered public safety.
For sports organizations and leagues, the stakes are high. For more than a decade, access to social media has given sports stars the opportunity to become more outspoken and impactful than ever before. As long as what they said wasn’t offensive or polarizing, they provided free, mostly positive, publicity for their sports, causes, and their own brands.
The vaccination problem changed the equation for sports, whose return in 2020 was viewed positively when they modeled safe behaviors, such as wearing a mask, playing in front of sparse crowds or no one. at all, and participate in regular testing. The demeanor and outspokenness of Djokovic, Rodgers, Irving and others against vaccines has compromised that goodwill, and organizations are now tightening their rules on playing defense.
The NCAA said Thursday that in many cases it would not consider players or coaches “fully vaccinated” unless they were also given a booster.
The clash between Novak Djokovic and Australia
While the guidelines aren’t binding on schools and conferences, they do have an influence, especially with the Division I basketball tournaments hosted by the NCAA set to begin in March.
“You are allowed to have your own beliefs, but once those beliefs start to impact other people, that’s where things start to get a little dodgy,” said former footballer Patrick McEnroe. tennis professional who is now a commentator for ESPN.
This momentum came to a head in Australia on Wednesday when Federal Border Police arrested Djokovic at an airport in Melbourne.
Djokovic, a Serbian who won 20 Grand Slam singles championships, had flown to Australia to defend his Australian Open title after it was announced that he had received a medical exemption from receiving a vaccine for an undisclosed reason from two panels of medical experts working on behalf of the organization that hosts the tournament and the government of Victoria, the state that includes the tournament site, Melbourne. But as Djokovic was on his way to Australia from Dubai, the public and some politicians began to express their anger that Djokovic, the No.1 male tennis player, had received unwarranted special treatment.
About 80 percent of Australians have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Australians have endured some of the toughest bans to prevent the spread of the virus, including lockdowns that lasted for hundreds of days and strict limits on movement. With the country averaging around 30,000 new cases a day, Australians were no longer willing to tolerate a scathing criticism of vaccines getting a questionable special pass.
Border officials, with the support of the Prime Minister Scott morrison and other senior federal officials, subsequently rejected his efforts to enter Australia on the grounds that his medical exemption was invalid.
Michael Payne, the former director of marketing for the International Olympic Committee, said Djokovic had been “caught in a political power game between different government departments who should have told him from the start ‘no vaccine, no game'” .
Maybe, but Djokovic could also have avoided his problems by simply getting vaccinated, as hundreds of millions of people have done over the past 12 months, either because they wanted to follow public health advice or because employers or governments demanded it.
Ditto for Irving, the Nets goalie who stubbornly refused to be vaccinated. Irving’s refusal made him ineligible to play at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center because New York City requires people working inside to be vaccinated.
The Nets had kept him away from their roster for the first two months of the season. Then, as their losses increased, the team opted to make him essentially a part-time employee who will only play arenas in cities that don’t prohibit unvaccinated people from working indoors.
He scored 22 points on Wednesday night in his first game of the season against the Indiana Pacers, but he will continue to be a symbol of everything the NBA has tried to avoid during the pandemic, which is seen as a potential danger. for the public, who have less and less patience for anyone who could hamper efforts to end the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Rodgers, who is a popular hero in the Midwest, has the Green Bay Packers one victory away from securing the NFC seed for the playoffs, which begin next week. Rodgers was criticized and ridiculed in November, when he tested positive for Covid-19 after months of making misleading claims about whether he was vaccinated. He also broke NFL rules for unvaccinated players, including not wearing a mask when speaking with reporters. He missed a game as he isolated himself and recovered from his illness. The NFL fined the Packers $ 300,000 for allowing his behavior.
Rodgers explained his decision not to get the vaccine, saying he had read hundreds of pages of studies and received treatments to prevent infection, treatments that scientists have debunked or failed to do. evidence, including a veterinary drug. He quickly became an object of widespread contempt and then blamed the culture cancellation for his treatment.
The blockbuster vaccine resistors have their supporters. Djokovic’s family held rallies in Belgrade on Thursday, where his father, Srdjan, accused Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister, of holding his son “captive” for his beliefs and trampling all over Serbia, where Djokovic is a sacred treasure .
He also read a message which he said was from Djokovic: “God sees everything. Morals and ethics as the greatest ideals are the shining stars towards spiritual ascension. My grace is spiritual and theirs is material wealth.
Djokovic’s main rival, Rafael Nadal, who is in Australia before playing at the Open, offered an unsympathetic view of the dispute on Thursday.
“In a way, I am sorry for him,” said Nadal, who has long supported vaccination efforts. “But at the same time, he had known the conditions for many months, so he’s making his own decision.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting.