Now, like communities across the country, some sports teams and players are grappling with another hot-button issue: Vaccine hesitancy.
The leagues are working to increase vaccines to return to some type of pre-Covid normalcy, and they often want to lean on their star players — among whom health officials call “trusted messengers” — to encourage vaccinations while offering incentives such as relaxed Covid protocols for vaccinated players.
Some pro athletes have been more than willing to roll up their sleeves and post about it on social media, but others are still questioning, resistant or hesitant, putting them at odds with the pro-vaccine messaging marketed by the leagues.
Star athletes are often the face of a franchise or league, and endorsement or hesitancy can sway the minds of tens of thousands of uncertain fans, according to Dr. Jonathan Fader, sport and performance psychologist.
“The sports world is really a microcosm of our larger society,” said Dr. Jarrod Spencer, sports psychologist and author of “Mind of the Athlete: Clearer Mind, Better Performance.”
CNN examined the protocols for the NBA, NFL and MLB, and here is how they — along with their respective athletes — have been handling vaccinations and Covid protocols:
The leagues are promoting vaccines with stars’ help
The NBA, NFL and MLB have said 85% is the magic number when it comes to deciding whether a team is fully vaccinated.
Any team that reaches the 85% threshold for players and staff can relax protocols, the leagues say. All 32 NFL teams have players and staff that are 90% vaccinated, according to league spokesman Brian McCarthy.
The leagues have made PSAs featuring legends and social media posts with current players to encourage fans and others to get vaccinated.
“Right away, I said yes, because I think when you have the vaccine, it’s very helpful for you,” Cabrera told MLB.com. “Everybody has to have the vaccine to get better and get all this behind us and be normal again. I’m tired of this.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett said he and his wife received the vaccine.
“It’s to each their own. I recommend it,” Barrett said. “I don’t know why people wouldn’t get it. But whatever makes you comfortable, whatever helps you sleep at night, you do that. But I would like for 85% of the team to be vaccinated.”
Some athletes just want more information
Despite support for the vaccine from many pro athletes, others have been hesitant because they feel there’s a lack of information about its long-term effects.
“I’m not a fan of it at all,” said Montez Sweat, a Washington Football Team defensive end. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that type of stuff.”
The NBA and NFL — and their respective players unions — told CNN they’ve provided players with ample information on the vaccine and the virus itself.
“The vaccine has proven to be the most effective tool in combating the COVID 19 pandemic. We will continue to provide the best data and information available and encourage those currently hesitant to get vaccinated,” an NBA spokesperson told CNN.
“We’ve held informational sessions with the clubs and players at their facilities and have also provided on-site opportunities to get vaccinated,” said McCarthy, the NFL spokesperson. “These sessions have included expert speakers such as Dr. James Hildreth of Meharry Medical (College). Teams have brought in additional experts.”
“Many people who don’t want to get vaccinated are not necessarily core anti-vaxxers, they just have … legitimate questions that need to be answered,” Fauci said.
Players have been getting information from Twitter, Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera said earlier this month.
“Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. I’m not sure if these guys watch television, the news, as much as I do to try to gather as much information,” Rivera said.
Spencer, the sports psychologist, told CNN that athletes may be getting information from spouses, significant others and extended family.
“For the athletes themselves, those conversations with the significant others are really powerful, but who is educating them?” he said.
Some athletes simply don’t see the benefit
The NFL Players Association on June 10 held a media call on which medical director Dr. Thom Mayer summed up the attitude about vaccines among athletes:
“I’ll say what our players say, they’re grown-ass men. You give them the grown-ass facts and they’ll make a grown-ass decision.”
That same day, Tamp Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians told reporters he has not spoken with anyone who has resisted vaccines.
“They’re just too lazy to get one,” he said.
While some athletes require more information and others are adamant about getting vaccinated, some have said they will not.
“Fine me if you want. My way of living and my values are more important to me than a dollar,” Beasley, 32, tweeted June 18. “If I’m forced into retirement, so be it.”
And on the spouse front, Bills safety Jordan Poyer’s wife, Rachel Bush, has been vocal about having the choice to wear masks or get vaccinated.
“I could write y’all a whole list of things you should be concerned with health wise before worrying about if you’re going to get covid from someone who isn’t vaccinated,” she tweeted.
Spencer tells CNN anxiety and fear of the unknown may contribute to vaccine hesitancy among athletes. The long-term implications of the vaccine are still unknown, he said.
“Many of them feel like the tradeoff right now is very much in favor of not getting the vaccine,” Spencer said, adding that it would be beneficial to the fans to see a team support a player who chose to not get vaccinated because it would demonstrate the freedom and support of making a choice about vaccinations. “That would really do wonders for the city in which they perform.”
Fader told CNN what athletes want more than anything is to return to normal, but they also want their concerns heard and understood.
No matter if athletes are excited or extremely nervous about the vaccine, Fader said, if coaches, teams and organizations can show them they care about why they don’t want a shot in the arm, they’re more likely to hear the messaging about why they should.
What happens if players don’t get vaccinated?
Players who choose not to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, will still need to adhere to league and team protocols.
Unvaccinated players will still need to adhere to some of these protocols. They are subject to daily tests, must have family or other visitors tested before seeing them and are subject to capacity limits in training areas.
Those who do not follow protocols, whether vaccinated or not, will face fines, suspension or other disciplinary measures, according to all three leagues.
Players have already faced fines for breaching protocol, many of whom attended social events that are prohibited.
Paul missed Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals when the Suns played the Los Angeles Clippers. He returned to play on Thursday.
CNN’s David Close, Jacob Lev, Jill Martin and Homero De La Fuente contributed to this report.