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AT LEAST DJOKOVIC IS HONEST ABOUT COVID, UNLIKE A LYING RODGERS
The tennis great is sacrificing Grand Slam titles and possibly G.O.A.T. status, but his no-vaccine stance is genuine compared to the con job of the NFL giant, who admits he intentionally duped us
In the real-as-a-casket crisis known as the coronavirus pandemic — 6.5 million deaths, 601 million cases, digits still spinning — say this much for the tennis great who refuses to be vaccinated: He’s not a phony about it.
Novak (aka No-vax) Djokovic is so resolute in his opposition to science and facts, he might cost himself as many as four or five Grand Slam titles in his politically imposed exile. That includes the ongoing U.S. Open, in which he would have been favored if the U.S. government allowed unvaccinated foreign nationals to enter the country, which it most certainly should not.
His stance ultimately might prevent him from owning the all-time majors record, a staggering price to maintain his body as a temple. If he’s willing to sacrifice G.O.A.T. status in his sport for his personal freedoms, we can call him misguided, foolish, even mindless. Does Djokovic not see the numbers that support the safety of vaccines, the billions of people who’ve received the jabs with no worse than minor side effects? He knows the data, sure, but he’d prefer to die — in a sporting context — for his authentic beliefs.
Something is noteworthy about that, even if he’s jeopardizing the health of fellow human beings. We can’t call him a fraud, a detail that crystalized amid two years of Djokovic-bashing when Aaron Rodgers showed up on “The Joe Rogan Experience” (NOOOOOOOO, NOT AGAIN!!!) and admitted to lying about his vaccination status last season. Remember when Rodgers — just off his first “ayahuasca journey” to Peru, where he “unlocked a lot of my heart” with psychedelics the last two offseasons — claimed he’d been “immunized” when asked by the media. He now admits, on buddy Rogan’s podcast, that it was a premeditated falsehood, an intentional duping.
“I’d been ready the entire time for this question, and had thought about how I wanted to answer it. And I had come to the conclusion I’m gonna say, 'I’ve been immunized.' And if there’s a follow-up, then talk about my process," Rodgers said. “But, (I) thought there’s a possibility that I say ‘I’m immunized,’ maybe they understand what that means, maybe they don’t. Maybe they follow up. They didn’t follow up. So then I go the season (with) them thinking, some of them, that I was vaccinated. The only follow-up they asked was basically asking me to rip on my teammates.”
If Roger Goodell was a commissioner who perpetually cared about the NFL’s competitive integrity, he’d issue Rodgers an immediate retroactive suspension for violating league rules. He intentionally skirted the system for most of the regular season, until testing positive for COVID and missing one game, and won his second straight Most Valuable Player award. It’s a good thing the Green Bay Packers were upset in the playoffs and didn’t win the Super Bowl. Or we’d be discussing whether to slap an asterisk, covered in a mask, atop the title banner in Lambeau Field. As it was, Rodgers was ripped last year when he acknowledged he hadn’t been vaccinated, blaming the media for not asking the follow-up question, allowing him to claim he didn’t intend to deceive. In admitting now that his scam was premeditated, he enters the pandemic wing of the Hall of Shame. He went so far to wear a mask to press conferences a year ago, a protocol privilege afforded only to vaccinated players. Does Rodgers care how many teammates, coaches and staff members he put at risk? He bears no contrition. He has no conscience.
“I knew at some point if I contracted COVID or if word got out, because it’s the NFL and there’s leaks everywhere, it was possible I’d have to answer the questions. And then sure enough, I contract COVID in the beginning of November, end of October,” he told Rogan. “And that’s when the shitstorm hit, because now I’m a liar, I’m endangering the community, my teammates, all these people. And the, you know, attempted takedown of me and, you know, my word and my integrity began.”
As much as we want to bury the coronavirus and move on, it remains a central issue in sports. At 35, Djokovic has lost historical momentum after he was deported in Australia, where he stayed in an immigration detention facility in a failed effort to gain entry to the Australian Open, an event he has won nine times. He lost to Rafael Nadal at the French Open before winning at Wimbledon, which gave him 21 career Slams to Nadal’s 22. He could have tied the Spaniard in New York, but he rejected the vaccine yet again. From somewhere in Europe, he tweeted last week, “Sadly, I will not be able to travel to NY this time for US Open. I’ll keep in good shape and positive spirit and wait for an opportunity to compete again.”
His absence allows Nadal, though plagued by an abdominal tear, a shot at a two-Slam lead atop the all-time list. At some point, Djokovic must ask himself if his anti-vax crusade is worth possibly losing what he so dearly seeks: an unequivocal place as the greatest men’s player ever. He long has been cursed as a tennis outcast, with his vaccine status only the latest reason for the public to resent him, in a men’s era when Nadal and Roger Federer have dominated every popularity metric. Winning the most Slams would give him the utmost retort. But what if Djokovic, too, grows old and falls just short?
He has his defenders, those who think he should have been allowed an exemption to play in Flushing Meadows. “It’s a joke. It’s sad. It’s just really unfortunate that it’s come to this,” said tennis great and ESPN analyst John McEnroe, per the Wall Street Journal. “Personally, as I’ve said, I would have gotten the vaccine, but maybe that’s why I have seven, and Novak’s got 21, because he sticks to his guns and that has fueled him in ways that most people can’t even imagine. … It’s really a shame. I don’t get what the problem is if you say he’s willing to take a test every day, for example.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, has few if any supporters. He had the gall, after admitting he conned the media, to rip journalists. “That’s not journalism anymore. It’s sensationalism,” he told Rogan. “You have 10 words on the front page to know what a story is about. 'How do I get the most clicks on it?' Well, they need Trump back or what will they talk about?” This from the self-promoting narcissist who can’t stay out of the headlines for a week.
Even the Major League Baseball season, about to slip into its annual early-autumn fade, could be impacted by COVID. Canada isn’t loosening its ban on unvaccinated foreigners, sending a recent memo to the MLB Players Association that anti-vaxers won’t be allowed to play in Toronto against the Blue Jays. Among those who could miss an American League wild-card series at Rogers Center: Seattle pitcher Robbie Ray, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, and Tampa Bay relievers Brooks Raley and Ryan Thompson. If the New York Yankees travel to Toronto later in October, will outfielder Andrew Benintendi be vaccinated? This is a big stretch, but if the St. Louis Cardinals or Philadelphia Phillies emerge from the National League to play the Jays in the World Series, Cardinals stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado wouldn’t be allowed in the country at this point. Nor would Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto and starting pitchers Aaron Nola and Kyle Gibson.
“I'm not gonna let Canada tell me what I do and don't put in my body,” Realmuto said before missing a July series in Ontario. NBA players who haven’t vaxed will face the same lockout from games in Toronto, in a league that will conduct weekly surveillance testing for non-vaxers such as Kyrie Irving.
The NFL is proceeding with business as normal, as if the pandemic never happened. “Hopefully,” said Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, “we are past that.” Mark my words: COVID cases will impact the season.
Unless, of course, lies continue to be told. Legacies are in progress for the greats of 21st-century sport, and Rodgers only has marred his with self-serving, deceptive b.s. Oddly, if accomplishing nothing else, he is making us recognize Novak Djokovic for at least telling the truth.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.