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It was with dry eyes that Australians waved goodbye to Novak Djokovic, the tennis superstar their country sent packing because he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19. Their laws require that foreigners entering the country be vaccinated. The Serbian, there to defend his Australian Open title, apparently assumed he’d fly past the rules governing mere mortals.
Djokovic has endorsement deals worth an estimated $30 million a year. His arrogant refusal to follow the public health mandates imposed on ordinary Australians may cut into his commercial worth, as it should.
One sponsor, the French clothing brand Lacoste, has already said it would review the controversy. In not a good sign for Djokovic, it also thanked the Open’s organizers “for all their efforts to ensure that the tournament is held in good conditions for players, staff and spectators.”
As a very casual consumer of professional sports, it is has long mystified me how doing masterful things with a ball justified dumpsters of gold in compensation. As a taxpayer, I resent being asked to subsidize professional sports arenas. As a subscriber to cable TV, I resent the “sports fee” tacked onto my bill. This source of enrichment for professional teams and their players — sneakily made to look like a tax — is especially aggravating to we who don’t care who is playing, where they are playing or what they are playing.
This much-shared irritation with entitled sports celebrities precedes the row over COVID-19 vaccinations. But when you add other bad behaviors to contempt for public health measures, you wonder how long before a hole is blown in their inflated value.
Another prominent example is Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets’ guard. New York City mandates that professional athletes be vaccinated if they want to play at home.
Irving was to be paid more than $35 million this season but is not on the court because he refuses to get his shots. Irving says he doesn’t object to the vaccine. He just doesn’t want to be told to get it — this in a city where delivery guys can’t enter a diner without proof of vaccination.
In November, Mayor-elect Eric Adams said that New York would not make an exemption for Irving. And although the Nets could let Irving play Brooklyn home games if they pay a (paltry) fine of $5,000 per violation, the NBA refused to give a green light. The NBA holds that teams must follow local laws, probably for the sport’s own good.
The assumption that sports heroes are unconditionally venerated reached a ridiculous height when Djokovic’s lawyers argued that by cancelling his visa, Australia could be stoking hostility toward vaccinations. Really, if his refusal to get his shots influences low-information fans, all the more reason to send him packing.
Look. I’ve seen the emotional powers of sports heroes. My home used to be a house of worship for Tom Brady. Those days are gone.
ESPN writer Howard Bryant worries what this outlandish sense of entitlement will ultimately do to professional sports. Djokovic “has cemented his membership within the pandemic’s most infamous group — the anti-vax multimillionaire athlete who behaves as if his fame, wealth and enormous platform to disseminate misinformation place him above the rest of us.”
Bryant noted that the usually admirable Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James has posted memes likening COVID-19 to the flu. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers lied about being vaccinated and then trolled his critics with the claim that he was some sort of Ayn Rand superman.
Some insist that the Australian government was making an example of Djokovic. Actually, the government was simply not making an exception for him. The pedestal on which sport celebrities stand is getting a lot lower.