September 3, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma McDermott | Photo courtesy of the author

Convincing Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is something the United States has struggled with since vaccines became widely available. Many of those to blame for vaccine mistrust hold positions of power and public influence. One group of such people are certain Major League Baseball (MLB) players who, unlike almost all of the players in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), did not get vaccinated or encourage others to.

In June, roughly halfway through baseball season, the MLB opted to relax COVID-19 restrictions for fully vaccinated players and staff. The threshold for relaxed conditions required that 85% of “tier 1” individuals –– including players, managers, team physicians, and other on-field staff –– be fully vaccinated. Upon meeting such requirements, teams were allowed to stop wearing masks in the dugout, enjoy team dining (though unvaccinated or partially vaccinated players had to remain masked when not eating or drinking), and stay with unvaccinated or partially vaccinated family on the road.

These updates to COVID-19 protocol were extremely significant; even something as simple as wearing a mask is a pain to put on every time a player enters the dugout. There is also something to be said for the kind of attitude that reaching the threshold for relaxed COVID protocol fosters as opposed to the kind of attitude that not meeting it creates. 

For example, when Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Jake Arrieta were on the Chicago Cubs, Rizzo and Arrieta refused to get vaccinated while Bryant opted to take it. Though all three players were, and still are, beloved in Chicago, it’s important to note that Rizzo was especially looked up to, and his decision not to get vaccinated almost certainly dissuaded some fans of his from doing so as well. 

Also relevant is that Rizzo, upon being traded to the New York Yankees, contracted COVID-19 and had to sit out a historic game against the Chicago White Sox at Field of Dreams. When he was a Cub, Rizzo’s fully vaccinated teammates didn’t enjoy the freedoms that vaccinated players on other teams did due, in part, to his decision. As a Yankee, he was forced to sit out multiple games due to his contraction of COVID-19. 

The MLB clearly tried to incentivize players, managers, and staff –– the people most frequently seen by the American public –– to get vaccinated. Keep in mind, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had also relaxed COVID-19 restrictions for the fully vaccinated population of the general public, yet another incentive to get vaccinated. However, by June 25, only 23 of 30 teams reached the 85% threshold

This number is strikingly lower than the number of vaccinated WNBA players who, as a league, were 99% fully vaccinated on June 28. Several of those players went on to win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August. When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and even social justice movements, for that matter, the players of the WNBA are not afraid to take what are sometimes controversial stances on issues that have wide repercussions. There seems to be a sense of solidarity in this league that doesn’t exist in the MLB.

The weight that these celebrities’ actions carry is not a responsibility that should be taken lightly, but it unfortunately has been. Athletes exist in positions of public trust, which requires a degree of thoughtfulness that has not been displayed by what might be a small, yet nevertheless important percentage, of baseball players.

The WNBA has, yet again, led the charge towards a future in which all of us are safer, healthier, and treated more equally. The athletes have engaged in protests against police brutality, and have pressured former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican and ideological opponent to many WNBA players to sell her share of the Atlanta Dream, and are currently trying to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. There seems not to be another league composed of such talented, successful, all-around good people.

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