Last month, NBA superstar Stephen Curry hosted a coronavirus Q&A with infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci on Instagram. Fauci discussed the pandemic in front of a (virtual) audience of tens of thousands, including Barack Obama and Justin Bieber.
The interview, which included questions about the virus, testing, and advice on social distancing, is arguably one of the most significant moments of Curry’s career. Though Curry is a three-time NBA champion, his willingness to use his fame to inform the public about the ongoing health crisis is as admirable as it is impactful. It was also a glimpse behind the curtain that allowed NBA fans to learn more about one of the most idolized athletes on the planet.
In the weeks following Curry’s coronavirus broadcast, other athletes have used social media and live streams with positive results. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson hosted an Instagram Live chat with the California governor, Gavin Newsom, in which they discussed the importance of mental health and wellness during the pandemic. Others broadcasts have been less serious but have, importantly, cheered us up: from Rafael Nadal’s heartwarming chats with Roger Federer and Andy Murray on Instagram (which also contained Nadal’s endearing fumbles with technology) to soccer stars attempting to entertain themselves at home.
If only every athlete’s online forays were as successful. Many of them, perhaps less guarded away from journalists and press officers, have given us their unfiltered opinions.
Most notoriously during a Facebook Live chat with fellow Serbian athletes, Novak Djokovic outed himself as an anti-vaxxer. “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,” the world No 1 said.
Djokovic has previously talked about his alternative views. A 2018 profile published in ShortList revealed that Djokovic believes in the power of telepathy and telekinesis, which he referred to as “gifts from this higher order”. While those views are not necessarily harmful, his opposition to vaccinations is dangerous. Given that Djokovic is one of the most recognizable faces in Serbia and has legions of diehard fans, he has the power to spread misinformation at a time when factual and medically sound guidance is more essential than ever. His public dismissal of vaccinations could cost gullible fans their lives.
Beyond tennis, several MMA fighters have shared concerning views about Covid-19. UFC hall-of-fame inductee Tito Ortiz shared several outlandish and easily debunked coronavirus conspiracies, including that the virus is “man-made” in order to quash protests around the world. UFC featherweight Bryce Mitchell believes that Covid-19 is a bioweapon “made by government”. He claims the government “infected the people on purpose to cause some type of chaos” in order to “try and take our guns”. Ortiz, like Djokovic, was sharing his views on a livestream – would he have made the same comments if an agent or handler had been there to make sure he didn’t say anything controversial?
One athlete who must surely wish someone had told him to shut up and stick to sports is Kyle Larson. The Nascar driver was fired by his team after using the N-word during a livestream of a virtual race. He apologized (in a video on social media, naturally) but the damage was done. Oddly enough Larson, who is of part-Japanese descent, was part of Nascar’s diversity program.
While these athletes are a controversial minority, it raises questions about whether athletes should automatically be considered role models. In truth, once you take away their physical skills, athletes are no different from the rest of us. They make mistakes, they are vulnerable and they are impressionable. Some of them are fine examples, others are pretty shoddy. So it’s wrong to idolize them as divine beings incapable of error or judgement. This has proven exceptionally true during the pandemic – and the immediacy of livestreaming has made that even more obvious.
Some athletes are able to rise to the surface. Look at Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, who stood up for their beliefs at great personal expense. Look at Nadal and Federer, two athletes with a large portfolio of charity work who continue to inspire countless youth around the world.
Nadal and Federer’s Instagram chat was great to watch. There were jokes, jabs and lots of informative discussions that offered fans a glimpse of their softer sides, away from the public relations specialists, press corps and or ATP officials. It was a beautiful interaction by two of the most respected athletes on the planet.
Whether it was more telling than the recent contributions of Djokovic, Larson and Ortiz is another question.