Explained: Why many footballers are refusing Covid-19 vaccination jabs as Sheffield United's medics are praised for their work
A variety of concerns, some motivated by what he describes as “genuine fears” about safety and others arising out of “bizarre” conspiracy theories being peddled on social media are behind the slow take-up of Covid-19 vaccination jabs among professional footballers, a former Sheffield United player has claimed.
The Star has spoken to a variety of people involved in the sport, and others holding positions of seniority within other disciplines, about the issue - which is expected to feature prominently on the agenda when English Football League and Premier League clubs stage their first pre-match press conferences following the international break.
Reminding how sensitive the issue has now become, none of those whose opinions were canvassed wanted to be publicly identified with one admitting it was because he feared being harassed by anti-vaxxers. But all of them agreed the situation is more complex than has been portrayed in some quarters.
“Obviously, with everything that’s being written and talked about, this is quite a big thing at the moment,” the ex-United player, who is now contracted to another club, said. “Genuinely, I think there’s a lot more of us who have been (vaccinated) than some people think. But quite a few haven’t and I’ve heard numerous different reasons why.
“Some people have, rightly or wrongly, a genuine fear about taking it or an aversion to putting substances in their bodies they don’t fully understand the science behind, because we’re taught not to do that. It might not be based on anything and it might not make sense, but it’s almost become a cultural thing.
“Definitely, though, I’ve heard other arguments that are just bizarre. And when you look into them or ask about them, I really do think it’s because that person spends too much time on social media reading stuff about it being a device to control us all. Football is no different to society. It’s just a window into that and so what you’re seeing in football is all of the things that are going on out there in the world but aren’t covered or highlighted as much.”
United, who face Stoke City this weekend, have been praised for limiting the number of outbreaks within their ranks. Chris Wilder, Slavisa Jokanovic’s predecessor, went on record soon after the height of the pandemic to praise the measures taken by their doctors and in-house medical staff.
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, recently confirmed some members of his squad were “reluctant” to confirm they had been vaccinated after witnessing the abuse he received after urging the public to ensure they were protected against the coronavirus earlier this summer.
“There’s definitely a bit of that, yes,” another former professional, who is now retired, explained. “The trouble is, building a profile on social media is viewed as being so important by some of the lads now, particularly those at the very highest level, that they simply can’t be bothered with the hassle.
“There’s also a bit of complacent, in my opinion, about the whole thing too. Everyone who plays is either young or relatively young and clearly fit. So, because they’ve been told that they’re in the category that’s least affected by the virus if they do catch it, they don’t really feel the need.”
“I’m not saying I agree with that,” he added, highlighting how Birmingham City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge required treatment in intensive care after catching Covid-19 in July. “Just look at what happened to Neil. That dispels that argument, surely? But I’d be lying if I told you that’s not what some think.”
A high profile figure in the world of boxing, based in the north of England, acknowledged some members of his own profession are also sceptical about being jabbed - although he was confused as to why given that evidence of vaccination against Hepatitis B, a bloodborne disease, is required in order to be licenced. Several well-known fighters, including Conor Benn, Doncaster’s Terri Harper, Ricky Hatton and his son Campbell have all taken part in a campaign to promote take up of the Covid-19 vaccine.
“It makes no sense to me, because you need to take a vaccination anyway in order to be able to box,” he said. “If you don’t have it, you can’t set foot inside a ring. So I don’t understand why some boxers take that without thinking but seem to have a problem with this one. It’s not just football. It’s other sports as well. The same reasons probably apply. But I just think in boxing, well, it’s even weirder because you have to have a jab in the first place and nobody kicks up a fuss about that.”
Providing guidance to supporters concerned about attending matches, the Premier League’s website tells fans they must be “prepared to show your Covid pass at stadium spot checks to prove you have been fully vaccinated or have a negative lateral flow test result.” Although vaccine passports are not mandatory in England, the advice, dated 2nd October 2021, raises the possibility that fans could find themselves in the unfathomable predicament of being required to demonstrate they have been double jabbed in order to watch people who haven’t.
“I think it was inevitable, the whole thing,” another ex-player stressed. “Because there’s no mention of Covid jabs in a professional footballer’s contract. “There’s all sorts of stipulations about other things you must or must not do. But Covid vaccines, they don’t appear anywhere and unless they are eventually written in, I don’t think there’s a lot that can be done to make them mandatory. I personally don’t believe they should be, I think it’s a personal choice for everyone, even though I’ve had both of them myself. But unless it’s put in a contract - and legally could you do that? - then this situation was always going to come about.”