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UNC athletes, please get vaccinated

I don’t know if this is necessary, but it seems like something that might need to be said

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably seen the spate of professional athletes recently coming out “skeptical” (read: against) of vaccination against Covid-19, and general concern among sports fans and media that vaccination rates among professional athletes seem generally pretty low, even as the United States is approaching a pretty solid rate across the country. You may have even seen players like Cole Beasley aggressively informing the public that he will be endangering them for the sake of his “virtues” and claiming that other, less famous athletes feel the same. Information about college athletes is a ton more scant, because media isn’t on campus over the summer sessions during offseason trainings and whatever else is going on, so we have no way of knowing what the deal might be with vaccinations among any college teams, including those who suit up in Chapel Hill.

And thus, I’m not going to make any assumptions. I will, however, make a request, knowing nothing about who it might apply to: UNC athletes, please, please get vaccinated. Please show off that you have been vaccinated. Please tell your peers in your own sports and in others to get vaccinated. And for the love of all you may consider holy, please don’t fall into the anti-vax traps of “personal choice,” “needing more information,” and taking un-nuanced, moral stances against anything encouraged by the ever-popular bogeymen that are “the government” and “Big Pharma.”

A lot of sports fans, not to mention coaches and executives, have mentioned the competitive advantage that a fully- or almost fully-vaccinated team would provide: with rules like those the NFL recently released likely to become a template for other team sports, having a vaccinated team allows for better practices, more chemistry-building, and mitigates unforeseen personnel losses for the sake of contact tracing. And while it’s not wrong, I think that’s misguided, not to mention more than a little condescending. Vaccinating against the coronavirus isn’t about wins and losses; it’s about a bigger picture - returning to a world with full attendance at games without the possibility of that world being taken away by virus variants, protecting the elderly and very young who can’t get vaccinated for a litany of reasons, and, broadly speaking, for the good of our collective freedom as a country and world (here’s some reading on thinking about collective freedom rather than individual).

And that’s all not even getting that you all deserve to be treated as more than just cogs in the machines that are your teams, or UNC’s athletic department. I don’t want to send a message that vaccination is just another way in which you should sacrifice your bodies to an umbrella of organizations that do not value your physical labor, emotional maturity, or intellectual prowess, I ask you to get vaccinated so that all those things are not compromised, so that you can keep being yourselves and keep contributing to the world as only you can, helping the world be a better place. In short, my primary impetus for asking you to get vaccinated, if you’re not already, is the same reason why I, and most sane people, want everybody to get vaccinated: by every measure, your life will be better after vaccination than before it, and I just want everybody to live their best lives.

Of course, this article was never just going to be about emotions, so here are a few rebuttals to some of the things you may be thinking:

Fitness and Health are not the same thing!

One of the most aggravating “arguments” the internet has come up with in support of the idea that sports have never needed to worry about Covid-19 is the idea that the virus supposedly almost never seriously affects young, healthy people alike professional athletes, so even if they do all get the virus, they have nothing to really worry about. Not only is this idea insidious because it assumes that athletes don’t have people in their lives who aren’t athletes and might not be “healthy,” and provably wrong because plenty of athletes have been hospitalized and had long-term complications from contracting Covid-19, but it’s also wrong in its premise: athletes are not the healthiest people among us. And you, the athletes, know this: The amount of body fat that you’re forced to cut for peak performance depresses nearly every system in your body, including, most relevantly, your immune systems. Football players particularly know that high-intensity training and playing a full-contact sport prematurely ages them, making them physically close to 50 in their 30’s and severely lowering their life expectancies. Sports across the board carry high risk of injury, which leads to using a ton of painkillers, which also aren’t great for your body, health-wise - the NFL has been using Toradol for decades, which is particularly nasty with repeated use. Generally speaking, “health” really looks very different from what the beauty industry and centuries of Western fatphobia have conditioned us to believe it looks like, and sports are just a particularly insidious example because of how many fans think of its participants as unfeeling, unmattering gladiators. You are more vulnerable than you’ve been led to believe to this virus, and I, for one, would prefer if you were protected from it.

The vaccine is not the hill to die on for your anti-government and/or anti-big business philosophies!

This isn’t a partisan point — basically nobody, at any point on the political spectrum, is a huge fan of either the United States government or of the pharmaceutical industry. Disagreements abound on why those things are bad, and how they would be fixed, but at a baseline, Americans are a pretty distrustful people of structures bigger than they can see, with plenty of reason to be that way. The kind of early vaccine hesitancy identified in Black communities, for example, was a clear and understandable consequence of histories like the Tuskeegee Study, forced sterilizations, and treatment outcome disparities in nearly all fields of medicine that continue to this day thanks to this country’s deeply embedded structural racism — after example after example of ways that healthcare has disserved Black people, it was understandable that some Black people would be hesitant about signing up in droves for a newly developed medicine (It is important to note now, however, that this early hesitancy has faded significantly with more available information and vaccines being rolled out to more people). It’s almost more understandable to be leery of pharmaceutical companies, who more or less exist to price working-class people out of living. Even with the Covid-19 vaccines, we’re seeing capitalist reluctance to release manufacturing instructions to the public for fear of losing out on future revenue based on these blueprints, even for a vaccine which is not netting them money. These are real issues and deserve your attention and skepticism!

But you have to know that these issues and concerns are being manipulated and voiced in bad faith by grifters who want not to reckon with their causes, but to live as if the issues with these structures do not exist by rejecting them wholesale and reducing life to a bastardized game of survival of the fittest. Their entire tactic is taking and amplifying populist talking points to rile working-class and middle-class people up, then, rather than taking aim at the causes of those points, asking those people to go through life blindly trusting nobody and nothing, convincing them pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is the only way to succeed because nobody else is looking out for them, obfuscating that bootstrapping is nigh impossible because of the systems they’re decrying, far from a solution to them. They, meanwhile, get vaccinated and do all the other things they tell you not to do that are actually helpful, pocket their hefty paychecks from the various parties who profit most from US capitalism, having played their role in its sustenance by feeding it their audience. I cannot emphasize this enough: the people trying to convince you not to get vaccinated, whether it is people on television, social media, distant relatives, coaches, teachers, or acquaintances, think it is best for the world if you and yours are killed by novel coronavirus. They may not wish you dead personally, but they definitely do not want you, and certainly not society, to be protected from it, as good as this pandemic has been at isolating all of us from communing and organizing with each other. To them, you are utterly replaceable, and if you die, or even have a compromised life, you probably deserve it. I reject this entirely, and that is why I ask you to get vaccinated.

The thing about the evils of the US government and the pharmaceutical industry is that they are invariably naked, particularly in this, the age of information. It was obviously evil when Donald Trump enacted his Muslim ban and caged children after separating them from their parents, it was obviously evil when the Obama Administration chose not to stop its drone operations after the first civilian casualty, it was obviously evil when Ronald Reagan chose to do nothing about the HIV/AIDS epidemic after learning that gay people were more likely to have and die from it, it is obviously evil that a lifesaving Epi-Pen costs $30 to make and $300 to buy, it was obviously evil when Martin Shkreli, under the paper-thin guise of taking on insurance companies, spiked the cost of Daraprim by a factor of 56. Be inquisitive for just 10 seconds and it’s pretty easy to see why it might not be good to trust these entities at baseline.

But that doesn’t mean to wholesale reject them, either, and those same 10 seconds applied to the Covid-19 vaccines will tell you that they’re not really a part of those systems. It is being offered at no cost to Americans with no proof of citizenship or insurance, guaranteeing that neither the government nor insurance companies nor predatory employers can be the ones determining who gets vaccinated and who doesn’t. All three US vaccines have been unprecedentedly transparent in their manufacturing process and all the science that has accompanied their rollout, and every hiccup has been widely reported on, such as the Johnson&Johnson blood clots (a plurality of women in this country, including some of you, probably, have regularly taken oral birth control with higher risk of the same symptom, but manufacturing still paused for fear of bad messaging), meaning that the pharmaceutical companies can’t hide anything they might have wanted to hide for the sake of profit or non-consensual medical advancement. These vaccines were brought to you by researchers and doctors unfettered by the profit motive, not by their capitalist bosses or by a government interested in manipulating the population. They happened as quickly as they did because for once in our lives, people were given the tools to work on them creatively instead of derivatively, and for the good of humanity rather than for the good of their employers, and I implore you to take advantage of them: if not only for the good of your health and public health, than also so that we can reap the rewards of a pharmaceutical and medical process that was divorced from corporate capitalism and maybe imagine a future where that marriage maybe doesn’t immediately rekindle. This, again, is exactly what everybody telling you not to be vaccinated does not want to see — medicine that serves us all.

Yes, I know those anti-vax traps sound like good personhood!

I’ll of course forgive you for thinking, when I asked you earlier to please not fall into the anti-vax traps we’re seeing athletes fall into and repeat again and again, that the statements that followed — namely, “everybody has to make their own personal choice” and “I need more information” — sound like good things to say, even the things that people should be saying. Heck, some particularly despicable anti-vaxxers have even co-opted “my body, my choice” as a justification for that first one, and that’s an objectively good slogan because bodily autonomy is objectively good (a note: exactly zero of the anti-vaxxers saying “my body, my choice” are interested in actually extending that autonomy to pregnant people).

But that seeming good is exactly why they’re such effective traps — because, as a definition by example, it puts me in the awkward position of appearing to speak against people making choices and getting information. Better writers than me have already done some of this, but all of those articles were kind of written to preach to the choir, so they’re missing a few steps (definitely do read them, though!). Here’s me trying, then, to fill those in:

The easier one of those two statements to fight is that of “needing more information,” popularized by (among others) Montez Sweat, who immediately proceeded to conflate vaccination with treatment and was then undermined by his coach saying he’d brought in several immunologists and public health experts to speak to the team. We have the information: Covid cases go down where people are vaccinated, nearly everybody these days who gets hospitalized with Covid (yes, that’s still happening) has not been vaccinated, and vaccinations, unlike Covid-19 resistance from previous contraction of COVID-19, seem pretty good at protecting against variants and mutations. Some people may try to seduce you by ignoring all that and pointing to the unknown long-term, which would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. Not only do they ignore the at-best unknown and at-worst very damaging long-term outlook of having Covid, but they also assume and inculcate a fear of social progress. When vaccines eliminated smallpox and polio, we theoretically didn’t know their long-term effects because we hadn’t lived in the future, but based on what we did know, we were pretty sure that there wouldn’t be any, and voila, we were right. The same is true now. We haven’t lived in a future to observe the aftermath of these vaccines, but we do know what mRNA is (here’s a well-sourced and lengthy Wikipedia article), because it’s part of the central dogma of genetics. And part of that knowledge is that mRNA degrades almost immediately after carrying out its functions, and that the challenge Moderna and Pfizer faced in developing their vaccines was in getting mRNA to survive even long enough in our bloodstreams to get to human non-blood cells, so it’s certainly not going to be sticking around long enough to do something to us decades from now (Also, the J&J vaccine runs on already established mechanisms). And we know plenty about all the other components of the vaccines, too. Sure, we don’t literally know what the long-term effects will be, but it’s that kind of thinking that stops you from doing literally anything new because you don’t know the outcome, and we all know that’s just no way to live. We would know if there were any indications of danger, and there just aren’t. We should be celebrating successful mRNA vaccines for the medical marvel that they are and the possibilities for HIV, influenza, and even common cold vaccination that they have opened up, but instead, thanks to bad-faith actors, we’re stuck acting like anything new is bad and not to be trusted — and don’t forget, for these people, it’s a short hop from medical science to social progress, and based on your laudable actions and words last summer, I know that’s not the side you want to be on.

As for the arguments of personal choice and bodily autonomy, I’m going to need you to bear with me. Bodily autonomy is, as I said before, an objective good and should be an inalienable right, and I think it’s good that people have a choice between vaccination and non-vaccination. I just also think that just because a choice is demanded doesn’t mean said choice has to be between two equally weighted or effective outcomes, nor does the ability to make a choice preclude others from being able to judge that choice. The NFL’s rules aren’t an infringement on that choice, nor are the requirements of a smattering of universities (so far) that have required vaccination for students to return to their campuses, nor would be, if it came to fruition, a vaccine passport of some kind.

I’ll use a basketball example to illustrate: imagine a 6’10 player — let’s call him Sen Bimmons — getting the ball right under the basket with nobody really around him. That player has a choice, right? He can dunk, or he can dump the ball off to somebody more covered than him for a tougher shot. Would you for a second entertain the thought that having this choice would mean that you couldn’t judge him for taking the worse option? The rhetoric of “personal choice” in this context is only ever used to hide from judgement for taking the worse option, and in this case, the worst option isn’t just a worse field goal attempt, but active danger to public health. I also want to get back to the point about communal freedom above — this “personal choice” isn’t personal at all, really, because none of us lives in a vacuum. Our choices affect one another, make each other do things and feel things, just on a human level, without even bringing celebrity into it. The choice to be vaccinated is a choice not just for oneself, but for everybody around them — and so is a choice to not be vaccinated. You shouldn’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes at an elementary school — the same logic applies here.

Vaccines are available on campus, if you’re there already, and probably at a pharmacy near you for walk-in appointments. To any of this article’s intended audience who have made it this far down, thank you — for reading and for all you do for our entertainments and for the university. If you have questions, or feel like the discussion around vaccination has been impenetrable, I hope I’ve unlocked something or other for you. And again, please, please get vaccinated at your earliest opportunity. Sports just haven’t been the same without safe, rambunctious crowds augmenting them, and I’d like that back in Chapel Hill ASAP.