Back to Prindle Institute

Can We Heckle Unvaccinated Athletes?

photograph of Bryson DeChambeau at event with crowd in background

A lot of the pleasure I take in watching sports comes not only from seeing the teams and people I like succeed, but also from seeing those I dislike fail. For instance, I will gladly watch the Blue Jays players hit an impressive string of dingers, but will equally enjoy seeing Ben Roethlisberger get sacked. Being a sports fan means feeling both pride and schadenfreude, and it comes with the territory of being a professional athlete that some people are going to love you, and some just aren’t.

While there are a lot of reasons one might have for disliking an athlete, the pandemic has brought about a new one: being unvaccinated. There have been a number of professional athletes who have come out as having not yet been vaccinated, for whatever reason. In particular, Bryson DeChambeau, an American professional golfer, stirred up controversy recently when he was unable to participate in the 2021 Olympics due to testing positive for COVID-19, and then did not get vaccinated when he returned. He raised the ire of many golf fans even more when he said that he did not regret failing to get vaccinated, stating that he thought that since he was “young and healthy” that he didn’t need it, and that he was waiting for the vaccine to become “really mainstream.”

The result was a serious increase in heckling during his most recent tour, which resulted in an altercation with a fan during which DeChambeau sought the assistance of the police (despite the incident only involving name-calling). Some reporting on the issue have referred to the incident and others like it as “bullying.”

Others, however, have taken the opposite stance. For instance, sports commentator Drew Magary has called for increased booing of unvaccinated athletes, and singles out additional players like NFL stars Sam Darnold, Adam Thielen, and MLB star Jason Heyward, among others. “Has coddling them worked?” asks Magary. “No. And do you know why? Because these athletes SUCK. They don’t want more information. They have it. Everyone does.”

So, what’s the right thing to do in this situation? As we saw above, certainly some amount of heckling of your least favorite athlete is okay: while I would never openly insult someone on the street, the context of being a fan is such that if I got the chance to attend a Pittsburgh Steelers game I would without hesitation tell Ben Roethlisberger that he’s the worst and not feel bad about it in the least. Clearly there is a limit to sports fandom: you can’t throw stuff or kick your least favorite player as they walk past you, and it would probably be too much to shout a string of obscenities in the vicinity of young and impressionable fans. So where’s the line? And has it moved at all when it comes to heckling on the basis of being unvaccinated?

On the one hand, there is a concern that heckling players for failing to be vaccinated goes too far, in that it attacks someone’s personal convictions. For instance, ESPN notes how some of DeChambeau’s fellow golfers have been sympathetic, feeling that it’s unfair for fans to heckle someone based off a personal choice. It does seem that it might be violating some norm of sports fandom to attack someone’s personal beliefs: yelling at someone that they’re washed up is within the realm of sports, but maybe it shouldn’t extend outside of that realm. If the heckling is not only personal but also incessant, then we can see how someone might interpret it as a kind of bullying.

On the other hand, one might think that unvaccinated professional athletes deserve some degree of derision, not only because they are putting their teammates and opponents – with whom, in the case of NFL players, they are very much in close personal contact – at risk, but also because as professional athletes they are, to some extent, role models, and thus face additional obligations to set a good example for their fans. They also do not seem to have any kind of excuse: on the assumption that they do not have legitimate medical reason not to get vaccinated, they have access to information about the safety of the vaccine, as well as ready access to the vaccine itself. Perhaps, then, heckling could help encourage them to change their mind.

But wait, isn’t it just mean to heckle someone excessively, regardless of the reason? If it makes someone feel bad, isn’t that sufficient reason not to do it?

Maybe not. For instance, consider Magary’s justification for increasing heckling:

“So boo them. Call them names. Get personal from the bleachers. Hold up a giant copy of your vaccination card to taunt them with. Let them understand that there are earned consequences for being so negligent. For endangering everyone around you and then having the naked gall to act like it’s some sacred private decision you just made.”

While Magary thus conceives of additional heckling as a kind of deserved punishment, perhaps we could think about it in a slightly different way: heckling unvaccinated athletes is not a mere expression of disliking someone because they play for a rival team, but as a kind of protest. As we saw above, there do seem to be legitimate reasons to be displeased with both the unvaccinated athletes themselves as well as the professional leagues that allow them to continue to play – i.e., that they are endangering their teammates and setting a bad example. Given that there’s more at stake than just the outcome of a golf tournament (or a football or baseball game) it may very well be warranted to make your opposition to them known.

Why Anti-Vaxxers Are (Kind of) Like Marxists

image of anti-vaxx protestor

On February 26th, the second-oldest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the United States issued an official statement warning church members about their COVID-19 vaccine options; in particular, it labeled the recently approved, single-dose vaccine from Johnson and Johnson “morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing.” In the following days, numerous representatives of Catholic dioceses around the country chimed in to agree, not actually forbidding the pious from being vaccinated, but rather advising that “If one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.”

To those unfamiliar with Catholic dogma, this warning is likely peculiar: what do abortion practices (which the Roman Catholic church officially, if not pragmatically, opposes) have to do with vaccinations? But this critique of vaccines is far from unique to conservative Catholic clergymen: for some time, critics of vaccines in general have lobbied pro-life sentiments as anti-vaccination arguments: my goal here is not necessarily to respond to abortion-based anti-vaccine rhetoric, but rather to demonstrate what else that kind of thinking might require someone to believe.

In short, it’s kind of Marxist.

Let’s back up and explain some things first. The “vaccinations-are-pro-abortion” (or even the less severe “some-vaccines-are-tainted-by-abortion”) argument is rooted in the fact that several vaccines, including Johnson and Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 treatment, have been developed, in part, by using celluar tissue taken from an aborted fetus in the 1960s. Understandably, biomedical research often requires human tissue samples for many reasons, but it can be difficult to collect and store cellular material in a way that is both efficient and effective for long-term use; typically, human cells die too quickly to be used in long-term experiments, but fetal human cells are not only inherently capable of reproducing themselves indefinitely, but scientists have developed techniques to intentionally grow them in cellular cultures in a way that effectively “immortalizes” them. So, medical researchers studying how to cure ailments ranging from Alzheimer’s Disease to spinal cord injuries to multiple kinds of cancer to, yes, diseases susceptible to vaccinations will typically rely on several immortalized cellular lines that have been cultivated for decades in order to test their experiments.

It is not the case that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine — or any other vaccine, for that matter — contains aborted fetal tissue (that is to say: absolutely no one is receiving literal fetal cells in their arm when they get their COVID shot). Nor is it the case that abortions are being done in order to develop vaccines today (each of the cell lines now in use, such as the MRC-5 and WI-38 cultures, originate in abortions performed in the mid-20th century — often for separately tragic reasons, such as the rubella epidemic of the 1960s).

But this is not to say that there are no moral questions that arise about the use of fetal cell lines (or any other human culture) in contemporary research contexts. For example, the HEK-293 line used in the development of several COVID-19 vaccines may have come from an abortion in 1973, but its exact origination is unclear and it is entirely possible that the original cells were collected from the remains of a spontaneous miscarriage. Either way, despite the fact that HEK-293 cells have been used to develop a wide variety of medical advances and medications (including many of the various antipsychotics today used to treat diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), the original donor of those cells (or their family) has never been compensated for their contribution to an industry enjoying billions of dollars of profit. Similarly, the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 1951, is a terrible example of how biomedical research can be built on a blatant injustice: after doctors collected a sample of Lacks’ cells without her knowledge, they discovered that the cells unexpectedly possessed the same kind of propensity for “immortalization” that makes fetal cells so useful, so they patented and commercialized the “HeLa” cell line. Despite never receiving Lacks’ consent for her cells to be used in this way (much less compensating her for her donation), the HeLa line has developed into one of the most useful (and lucrative) cell cultures on the market today; Lacks’ family never even knew the cultures existed until two decades after her death.

Setting those issues aside for now, what can we make of the claim that the conditions under which a commodity is manufactured can irrevocably taint the commodity itself with immorality? This is, I take it, a core complaint of the pro-life critic of vaccine development practices: the goals of vaccine deployment might be laudable enough (namely, reducing the spread of disease), but the methods of doing so are, arguably, associated with something purportedly inexcusable. For some, the difference between contemporary abortions and contemporary immortalized fetal cell lines originating in initially-unrelated abortions a generation ago might be sufficient to distinguish morally between pro-life commitments and vaccination acceptance — that is to say, someone could easily be a critic of elective abortion and consistently still believe that modern vaccination programs are morally acceptable. (It is worth noting that several outspoken pro-life American religious leaders, including Robert Jeffress, Al Mohler, and Franklin Graham have spoken out recently in support of COVID-19 vaccination programs.)

But let’s suppose that this is inconsistent (as many of Graham’s fans argued after he publicly surmised that Jesus would be pro-vaccine); what might we be committing ourselves to if we affirm that the use of fetal cell lines in their development hopelessly entangles vaccines within a morass of morally unacceptable problems?

Firstly, it seems like we would also need to reject many additional medical advances made over the last five decades. Anyone who rejects a vaccination against the novel coronavirus (or any other disease) because of the abortion-based critique of vaccinations I’ve been discussing will seemingly also need to reject treatments for conditions ranging from various cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and macular degeneration to Alzheimer’s, paralysis, strokes, organ transplants, and medications for a wide variety of conditions. Without some special reason to think that vaccines are uniquely susceptible to being morally tainted via their tenuous association to past abortions, it is unclear why one could be an anti-vaxxer and not also a critic of many other elements of modern medicine.

Secondly, this whole conversation reminds me of the broader Marxist critique of capitalism in general. In his essay “Estranged Labor,” Marx introduces the idea that, under capitalism, workers are alienated from multiple things, including the products of their labor, their fellow human beings, and even themselves. A society split into different class-divisions, Marx says, necessarily prevents certain people (workers) from being able to live lives as fully realized human beings, creating and enjoying both cultural artifacts and the other people within our cultural relationships. In later works, like the first volume of Capital, Marx would develop the further critique that capitalism is not only alienating but exploitative because it, by design, transfers the value created by the labor of workers to the pockets of business-owners; for one example, consider the connection between Jeff Bezos’ wealth and the often-cataloged, but rarely-prevented dehumanization of workers in Amazon distribution centers (another is the dangerous abuses regularly perpetrated against both human workers and nonhuman animal victims in factory farms). Nowadays, this critique is sometimes summarized in the sloganized observation that there exists “no ethical consumption under capitalism” — although Marx himself never wrote those words, it is a (somewhat oversimplified) distillation of his broader point: the conditions under which capitalism operates necessarily spreads a taint of moral corruption throughout the entire line of commodity production in a manner that should provoke us to rethink the structuring of that productive system as a whole.

Of course, if someone is apt to think that products are, in a sense, insulated from the moral conditions of their production, then they would be able to quickly reject the Marxist critique of capitalism. Notice that there is at least one person who can’t do this, though: the person who accepts that vaccines are necessarily morally tainted because of the conditions of their production.

In short, if someone is inclined to believe that their pro-life commitments require them to think that vaccines are morally tainted, then they are seemingly required (upon pain of inconsistency) to believe that their anti-abuse commitments will require them to believe that many additional products, including anything produced on a factory farm and, perhaps, even all products produced by capitalists, are morally tainted as well.

Novak Djokovic and the Expectations of Celebrity

photograph of Djokovic on stage at mic with trophy in front of packed stadium

Novak Djokovic created controversy amidst the coronavirus pandemic. While a vaccine for COVID-19 has yet to be developed, the world No. 1 of men’s tennis expressed resistance to possible compulsory vaccinations for professional tennis players when the tour resumes. “Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” he said in a live Facebook chat.

Rafael Nadal, the world No. 2, waded into the debate and rebuked Djokovic’s apparent refusal to comply with the potential compulsory vaccination. “If the ATP or the International Tennis Federation obligates us to take the vaccine to play tennis, then we will have to do it,” Nadal said. “It’s about following the rules, nothing more than that.”

Djokovic’s resistance to vaccinations is a manifestation of his both belief in natural healing and prioritization of personal liberty. That he would risk severe penalty or possible cessation of his career, prematurely interrupting one of the greatest runs in the history of men’s tennis—and all of the complimentary millions in prize money and endorsement deals—is telling of how seriously the world No. 1 holds this conviction. That an athlete of such esteem and renown would express this conviction at a turbulent time in the health of the world is nothing short of significant. His public stand against vaccinations for himself represents an ethical dilemma about celebrity morality. This dilemma is reflected in one of his comments: “I have expressed my views because I have the right to and I also feel responsible to highlight certain essential topics that are concerning the tennis world.”

Given his fame and stature, should Djokovic exercise caution in taking moral stands? Does greater fame demand greater responsibility from celebrities? Or should they enjoy the same freedom that normal civilians do to express publicly the views they hold privately?

There are at least three reasons to believe celebrities ought to be constrained by greater responsibility. Firstly, the internet is conducive to a rapid and unfettered spread of information. A comment, phenomenon, or craze can promulgate and take hold of the public psyche before there has been a chance to assess its virtue or utility. Writing for the Journal of Business Ethics, Chong Ju Choi and Ron Berger assert that the internet has allowed the influence of celebrities to extend far beyond their respective industries of work. Now, more than ever, celebrities can be heard and listened to.

Secondly, younger generations in particular are susceptible to the influence of celebrities. Choi and Berger observe that “the younger generation is experiencing a combination of consumer crazes and bandwagon effects.” During a global health emergency, this effect could be rather damaging and dangerous. Many young people were already dismissing the gravity of COVID-19, opting to proceed with their travel plans unabated rather than help to mitigate the virus’s spread. Seeing a world-renown athlete mull over refusing vaccination could help justify their behavior or motivate similar behavior. (However, it does not logically follow from a celebrity’s public expression of a stance that the celebrity’s fans will adopt that stance as their own.)

Relatedly, celebrity morality can confer credibility and cache upon movements that are thought to be dubious. Celebrities have supplanted traditional sources of moral guidance (such as religious figures). Their endorsement is a desirable commodity for any movement. In Novak Djokovic, the anti-vaxx movement has found a spokesperson. Djokovic arguably rivals all celebrity anti-vaxxers and vaccination-skeptics in terms of global fame.

Conversely, there are at least three reasons to believe that celebrities ought not to be constrained by greater responsibility. While the attention of a wide audience and the power of global influence might be a reason to constrain celebrity morality, it is also a reason for precisely the opposite. Those blessed with the megaphone of celebrity can prove to be an effective voice for good. Attention for issues oft-ignored and progress towards a morally righteous end can sometimes only be achieved by the intervention of someone who has many followers. University of Virginia religious studies professor John Portmann argues that celebrities are able to elevate the presence of particular issues, “making ethical and moral debates important” to a public that idolizes famous people.

Among other stars of their time, Sammy Davis, Jr., Nina Simone, and Marlon Brando are credited with increasing the visibility of and spurring on the civil rights movement in the U.S. Ricky Gervais has been lauded for the attention he has brought to animal welfare and his financial support of animal charities. Just recently, former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin commended legendary quarterback Tom Brady for signing his letter asking for the FBI and DoJ to investigate the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, calling the endorsement of such a figure “significant” for the cause of racial equality. The celebrity voice can be the necessary succor that pushes moral goals across the finish line, radically transforming society.

Secondly, if one could develop a comprehensive, incontrovertible, and universalizable standard by which the public moral stances of celebrities could be evaluated and deemed as either morally “Fit” or “Unfit” for public consumption, perhaps then there could be constraints on what positions they take publicly. While that is a ludicrous near-impossibility, backlash against particular stances, such as Djokovic’s, suggest that some critics think there is such a standard. Indeed, celebrity interventions on moral issues tend to draw alarm only if they do not conform with the mainstream, however illusory that may be.

Lastly, fame does not strip celebrities of their membership in society. And as members of society, they ought to enjoy the same freedom to participate in the public debate on moral and ethical issues as those who do not possess their fame.

Since his initial comments, Djokovic has demonstrated an evolution of thought on the matter. In a recent press release, he stated: “I am keeping an open mind, and I’ll continue to research this topic because it is important and it will affect all of us.” This attitude may serve as a useful reminder for the general public, too. The celebrity voice might be simply one thing to consider while researching amidst the cacophony of moral proclamations.

Regardless of the view on expectations for celebrity morality, one thing is true: fame does not endow celebrities with moral authority. Perhaps it is best for the fans to remember that.

Pinterest’s Block on Anti-Vaccination Content

Photograph of hands of a scientist, under a sterile hood, preparing a vaccine

Pinterest, the good-natured social media site where users re-pin new ideas and things to try, has made recent headlines for their stance against anti-vaccination propaganda. In fall 2018, Pinterest quietly removed results to vaccination-related questions from the search bar.  Now, when you type “vaccine” or “anti-vax,” a pop-up will relay that there is no related content and will provide a link to the community guidelines. Reported first by the Wall Street Journal, Pinterest finally disclosed their choice to censor the questionable health claims made by anti-vaccination groups.

Pinterest’s decision to block vaccines in their search domain was widely based on the fact that the site had become a hub for anti-vaccination activists. These groups aim to educate parents regarding the dangers of vaccinations but with theories that are unsupported by peer-reviewed, scientific research. The tactics used are typically fear-inducing photographs or stories about harm to children caused by vaccinations without any scientific proof. The groups claim to offer parents the “most transparency” but also don’t mention the dangers of not vaccinating. Pinterest’s response aimed to discontinue the spread of misinformation and falsehoods on their website.

When it comes to vaccines, the spread of misinformation could have a devastating impact on individuals and the society. There has been an increase in confusion and mistrust among the public when it comes to vaccines in general. One of the most noteworthy fear-causing publications was by the doctor Andrew Wakesfield, who suggested a connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the development of autism in young children. Although deemed fraudulent, it is considered the beginning of the anti-vaccination movement. This movement is equally seen in the cases of influenza in America. Last year during the 2017-2018 season, there was a record-breaking number of hospitalizations and deaths among children in the US with less than half of Americans receiving the flu shot. It is because of these that World Health Organization (WHO) has recently listed the anti-vaccine movement a top health threat for 2019. When Pinterest decided to curtail vaccine-related content on their site public, it raised the question; should social media censor for misinformation?

Pinterest’s new policy stems from the fear that misinformation can have “detrimental effects on a pinner’s health or on public safety.” The guidelines officially state that the website bans the “promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice.” A report found in 2016 claimed that 75 percent of posts on Pinterest referring to vaccines were negative. In addition, other studies have found that 80 percent of mothers and 38 percent of fathers in the US have used Pinterest. It is likely that mothers and fathers, looking for advice regarding their children’s heath, ran across posts on Pinterest with anti-vaccination rhetoric. One could argue that media sites have an obligation to censor this kind of propaganda for public health and safety reasons. On the other hand, even well-intentioned censorship threatens to intrude on our rights protecting free speech (also discussed in this Prindle Post article about the case of Alex Jones).

With a website that is used by mothers and fathers, restricting these groups’ ability to voice their concerns or opinions could be seen as a commentary on parenting styles. Vaccine hesitancy is often caused from worries about side effects, cost, moral or religious obligations, or lack of knowledge about immunizations. There is value in the autonomy that parents have in choosing whether or not to vaccinate their children because they have the right to make medical decisions focused around their own values. In addition, who is to say whose opinion is more valid regarding vaccinations? Who’s to say which opinions deserve censure? Pinterest approached this issue in banning all vaccine-related information, reputable or not. This absolute censorship, while avoiding the bias of what is considered a reputable source, could also be seen as problematic. It is taking the opportunity away from readers to decide for themselves what sources they think are credible or not and through Pinterest they cannot be educated on the subject to any extent. A spokesperson from Pinterest, Jamie Favazza says, “Right now, blocking results in search is a temporary solution to prevent people from encountering harmful misinformation.”

Vaccine misinformation isn’t only a Pinterest problem; other social media outlets like YouTube and Twitter have been infiltrated by vaccination misinformation as well. YouTube’s policy doesn’t allow ads for anti-vaccine videos. Twitter has no specific policy on the matter. A spokesperson for Twitter, Katie Rosborough, said that “We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth,” and also added that, “the company was working to surface the highest-quality and most relevant content first.”

Social media represents an open platform for people to voice interests and create spaces that unite beliefs. But should some spaces not exist and should some beliefs not be circulated? In the case of anti-vaccine movement, people continue to adhere to their beliefs which further energizes the movement and polarizes the theories. With our ever-growing reliance on social media for information, social media outlets have a reason to worry about the ramifications of their content, especially in influencing user’s decisions about their health.