Unvaccinated footballers are putting lives at risk. Is it time to stop picking them?

I’ve been wondering how Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s mate’s testicles are getting on. In a now deleted tweet in September, the singer announced that her cousin wouldn’t get the Covid vaccine because his friend got it and his testicles swelled up. Not only that – he became impotent, and his fiancée called off their impending wedding. Quite the run of bad luck.

Coincidentally, shortly after I was vaccinated my wife became pregnant, and without wanting to go into too much detail, my testicles remained the same size throughout. You win some you lose some.

This of course would be funny – if the anti-vax movement wasn’t so strong, if misinformation wasn’t so rife and if vaccine hesitancy wasn’t so prevalent.

Recent reports suggest that between three and five of the England football squad are not vaccinated – and that Premier League players are quoting conspiracy theories about infertility or Bill Gates’ plans for world domination as reasons for not getting it. As many as two thirds of top-flight players have not been double vaccinated.

What a time to reject science. There is no good time. But now, when many parts of the world are still locked down. Where family members haven’t been able to see each other for years, where people haven’t been able to say goodbye to their loved ones. Where the only way out is to vaccinate the world. Why suddenly choose to ignore the science?

The science that has guided their fitness, the science that has fixed their knees, the science that dictates what they eat, what they drink, when they sleep. The science that has injected them to mask the pain before a big game, that has flown them from ground to ground, the science that has built the stadiums they play in. The science that has enabled people to go back and watch them in those grounds.

Should we continue to sympathise with those who don’t want the vaccine? Top footballers have access to the best doctors with the knowledge to allay any fears.

The chances of getting Covid and the chances of spreading it are vastly reduced if you have the vaccine. You are literally less likely to infect someone and kill them if you have taken it.

The West Brom and Ireland striker Callum Robinson has caught Covid twice. Yet he hasn’t been vaccinated. “That’s my choice at this moment in time,” he said. “Further down the line I could change my mind and want to do it. I think it’s your personal choice and my choice at this moment in time, I haven’t been vaccinated. I wouldn’t force people to do it, it’s your choice and your body.”

I have no interest in attacking Robinson – he has answered questions honestly when asked, and clearly there are many footballers in his position. The freedom to choose matters. But the freedom of the vaccinated and the vulnerable not to be infected also matters. It is not as simple as “each to their own”.

How do you explain to a footballer, or anyone else for that matter – that this is about protecting the community – and not just yourself? Jürgen Klopp was right to compare it to drink-driving. “I don’t take the vaccination only to protect me, I take the vaccination to protect all the people around me,” he said. “I don’t understand why that is a limitation of freedom because, if it is, then not being allowed to drink and drive is a limitation of freedom as well. I got the vaccination because I was concerned about myself but even more so about everybody around me.”

Players might have the choice, but club staff have to go to work to earn money. What if they live with vulnerable people? Where is their freedom?

There is a crisis of misinformation right now. This week Facebook was accused of harming children and weakening democracy – putting dangerous content at the top of your feed – of course Mark Zuckerburg denies this. People click and share without checking the source of any conspiracy. Scientists who have spent their entire careers working to create vaccines must despair. I hear broadcasters given hours of airtime to detail their vaccine hesitancy without even considering speaking to an expert.

Dressing rooms are strange places. Often the most persuasive voice affects the rest. Strong managers – Klopp, Marcelo Bielsa, Thomas Frank for example – seem to have won this battle.

Perhaps it’s time for football’s administrators to get stricter. In the NFL unvaccinated players are allowed to play, but the rules are tough: relentless testing, big fines for refusing to wear masks or maintaining physical distance. A team will have to forfeit and be given a loss if a game is cancelled because of a Covid outbreak among their unvaccinated players – and neither team’s players will be paid.

In the NBA unvaccinated players are banned from restaurants and other entertainment venues. Andrew Wiggins, who plays for Golden State Warriors, had his request to remain unvaccinated on religious grounds turned down. He was told he could not play home games until he met San Francisco’s health requirements on attending large indoor events. He got vaccinated.

They seem like sensible rules. What about going further – is it too far to suggest not picking unvaccinated players? It goes against my natural instincts to consider something that draconian, and I’m fully aware of the abuse that will come my way after even suggesting it. But to be armed with all the information, and still reject it, puts others at risk.

Pat Nevin was on the radio the other day. “Football players have had so many benefits over this period of time,” he said. “Everyone has bent over backwards to get football back on … To not then be vaccinated and help secure other people’s safety as well as their own, I’m gobsmacked, I’m really upset about it.” I couldn’t put it any better.

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