I have discussed the idea of pro athletes getting the COVID-19 vaccine in the early phases of its distribution with many people. Some agree with me, and they feel that the public will generally support the idea that athletes should not come before more at-risk groups. But others – presumably die-hard sports fans – think I’ll be hated for my opinion. It’s an interesting question. As I discussed in my sports medicine newspaper column, while the leagues themselves will say they are not trying to jump to the front of the line, I see a huge incentive for team owners to quietly try to do it. We will have to see how it plays out.

Where are professional athletes in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine?

The initial distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine brings hope that we’re approaching the end of the pandemic. The CDC framework for allocation of the vaccine emphasizes healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities receive it first. It is believed essential workers, adults over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions who are at higher risk for severe disease and death from the coronavirus will be next. But I feel strongly that one group should not be allowed to jump to the front of the line – professional athletes.

Will sports team owners try to get their players vaccinated early?

The NBA and NFL will respect the existing vaccine guidelines

The leagues are publicly saying the right things. The NBA and NFL have both acknowledged that they will respect the guidelines of the government and health officials. I believe them. If Roger Goodell or Adam Silver lobbied to get the players vaccinated before the above groups, the public outrage would be enormous.

But I also believe that many of the billionaire team owners will quietly try to secure vaccines for their players. I have no knowledge that any owner or team is trying to do it, but I strongly believe some will. The reason is simple: The vaccine offers a huge competitive advantage.

The vaccine offers a huge competitive advantage

If an NBA team, for example, has all of its players vaccinated, and therefore protected against the virus, it has an advantage over another unprotected team. Should a COVID outbreak occur – and it’s likely these team outbreaks will continue for the next few months – then that team might be forced to adjust its schedule. Now it might have to play five games in five nights while the vaccinated team plays with normal days of rest. Plus, that “protected” team won’t lose key players to COVID for weeks at a time over important stretches of the season.

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Two ways pro athletes could receive the COVID-19 vaccine early

It seems farfetched, but there are at least two ways owners could try to get their players the vaccine. One would be to lobby state health officials that the athletes are “essential workers.” In April, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and other professional sports leagues and media production with national audiences were classified as “essential services” in Florida and allowed to continue operation.

Second, the owners could pressure their team physicians to exaggerate the underlying medical conditions of the players. With medical confidentiality at stake, there likely won’t be any check of whether those medical conditions exist by the healthcare workers actually giving the vaccine.

Teams have better access to COVID tests and treatments

These teams have the financial resources to get just about any medical care they want. The NBA generated quite a bit of criticism when entire teams underwent COVID tests in March, when those same tests were scarce for everyone else. The leagues and teams have since contracted with private labs to pay for the best and fastest tests.  According to The Washington Post, the NFL has already conducted nearly 700,000 coronavirus tests this season.

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The athletes as vaccine influencers?

Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal recently reported that some health officials believe allowing pro athletes to get the vaccine will help encourage the general public to get it. This display of confidence, they supposedly argue, would be especially important for minorities, who appear more resistant to getting the vaccine. But couldn’t athletes encourage people to get the vaccine without skipping line themselves? Maybe they could do Public Service Announcements or promote it on their social media accounts.

I understand that professional athletes make up a fairly small number of people compared to the overall population. The total number of players on the active team rosters of the four major American sports, not counting the expanded MLB rosters heading into the postseason, is 3,609. That’s only about one-quarter of the roughly 14,000 employees at MUSC, the largest hospital here in Charleston, South Carolina, alone.

Athletes vs. essential workers

Athletes are not essential workers. They provide entertainment that distracts us from the malaise caused by this pandemic. But they are not critical to the functioning of society, as teachers, police officers, firefighters and members of the military are. I’d go further and suggest they are less important in the grand scheme of things than employees of restaurants, grocery stores, public transportation, and many other industries.

I’m like millions of sports fans. I love sports and love being able to watch sports. I support the leagues playing now despite difficult circumstances. But as much as we love sports, the athletes we love to watch are not more important than everyone else. Allowing them to get the vaccine early just doesn’t seem right.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the December 25, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.