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We need to call out the despicable response to Damar Hamlin’s injury

Conservative pundit Charlie Kirk leaped at the chance to spread conspiracy theories and medical misinformation

Noah Berlatsky
Wednesday 04 January 2023 21:44 GMT
NFL's Damar Hamlin surrounded by players after collapsing on field

On Monday night, football fans watched in horror as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest after what looked like a routine tackle. Hamlin received CPR on the field and was taken away in an ambulance. The game was cancelled.

While most people were expressing sympathy or solidarity, conservative pundit Charlie Kirk leaped at the chance to spread conspiracy theories and medical misinformation about Covid vaccines. In doing so, he showed once again that the right’s approach to Covid is built on callous disregard for the safety of workers and the dignity of working people.

After Hamlin’s injury, Kirk tweeted: “This is a tragic and all too familiar sight right now: Athletes dropping suddenly.” That’s a reference to long-standing right-wing conspiracy theories falsely linking the deaths of athletes to the Covid vaccine. There is no evidence for these claims.

The right has developed an entire barrage of conspiratorial claims about athletes in particular because athletes are among the most vaccinated workers in the country. In the NFL, 94.4 percent of players were fully vaccinated in December 2021; in the NBA, it was 95 percent, and in the NHL, 99 percent.

Athletes are vaccinated at high rates for the simple reason that it’s very difficult for a sports team to function in a pandemic. Athletes work in close quarters; pre-vaccine, missed games and practices were a chronic problem as Covid swept through teams unimpeded. Vaccines were a workplace safety measure in an industry where workers are highly paid and difficult to replace. Many athletes also used their high profile and celebrity to encourage the public to embrace vaccines.

The NFL, like the rest of the country, rolled back Covid protocols in 2022 despite the fact that 300-400 people in the US continue to die of the disease every day. In the general population, about 70 percent of adults are not up to date on Covid boosters. Charlie Kirk and the antivaxxers have basically won. The US is doing little to fight Covid, and ongoing vaccination efforts have stalled out.

The surrender on Covid is in many respects a surrender on workplace safety. The federal government and employers have largely, if quietly, agreed to work together to ignore the danger that Covid poses to workers. After the Supreme Court struck down federal regulations on mandates, airlines rushed to end mask requirements — leading to a predictable increase in staff infections and illness.

More recently, President Biden used his authority to prevent rail workers from striking. As a result, workers had to accept a contract in which rail companies once again refused to give their workers more than one day of paid sick leave. That’s a policy that seems designed to force employees to come to work sick and spread Covid to coworkers.

Hamlin’s terrible injury raises workplace safety issues as well. Football has long been recognized as a very dangerous sport. There are serious worries that football collisions cause small brain injuries which over time can lead to degenerative brain diseases. Former NFL player Ryan Clark made a heartfelt, painful statement on ESPN in which he talked about how sometimes life-threatening injuries were a too-little discussed part of football. “I dealt with this before, and I watched my teammates, for days, come to my hospital bed and just cry. I had them call me and tell me that they didn’t think I was gonna make it.” Hamlin’s televised cardiac arrest is likely to make players and fans question, at least briefly, whether the entertainment is worth the cost in bodies and lives.

Kirk’s intervention is intended to draw attention away from the safety of the players, and instead demonize a necessary public health intervention specifically designed to protect those same players. It’s the equivalent of suggesting that seat-belts cause auto fatalities. Or that workplace injuries would decrease if only workers were mandated to work 80 hours a week. Or that workers are safer in a pandemic because the US doesn’t have universal paid sick leave policies.

Kirk was roundly mocked for using a terrifying workplace accident as an excuse to peddle lies and conspiracy theories. And everyone should in fact mock him. But the uncomfortable fact is that, overall, opposition to Covid mitigation has been very successful in undermining support for workplace safety. Hamlin’s injuries are horrible, and Kirk’s rush to lie about their cause is despicable. The deaths caused by Covid are horrible as well. If we really want to rebuke Charlie Kirk, we should work much harder to embrace strategies — vaccination, masking, testing — that can reduce them.

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