Disgusting Anti-Vaxxers Exploit Damar Hamlin, Injured Buffalo Bills Safety

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I generally don’t believe in “guilty pleasures,” because really, if something brings you joy there’s usually no reason to feel guilty about it. Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is genuinely entertaining and I don’t care who knows I watched every damn episode although if I’m being honest I’m getting a little annoyed at this “how did Heather get a black eye” storyline.

But I do have one pleasure that I feel justifiably guilty about, and that’s professional American football. The guilt is because by watching, betting on, buying tickets for, and buying merch for NFL games, I’m supporting a really truly unhealthy activity. For more on that, check out this ancient video I made talking about the epidemic of concussions that the NFL tried and failed to cover up. Like, that’s some evil shit! I should stop watching it! And yet, last Monday I was glued to the TV watching the Bills play the Bengals when the Bills safety, Damar Hamlin, suddenly collapsed after a tackle.

I’ll pause here to say that as of this recording, Hamlin is still critically ill but alive, awake, and able to move his limbs and speak, which is most likely thanks to an immediate response by medical personnel who gave him life-saving treatment within a minute of his collapse.

Hamlin’s ordeal was scary and also confusing for those watching, because the tackle didn’t even look that bad: the NFL forbids head-to-head contact to avoid concussions and serious spinal injuries but they still happen, so I thought maybe it was that, but replays showed that that wasn’t the problem. I’m not a doctor, though, so who knows? And who am I to speculate? Who is ANYONE to speculate, based on seeing a few seconds of this man’s life and knowing nothing else?

Well. Lack of general or direct knowledge has never stopped the internet from speculating, and my Twitter feed quickly filled up with people guessing what exactly went wrong. I even saw a few doctors chime in, which…at first I was a bit grossed out about that, because diagnosing from afar is a moral grey area that can contribute to misinformation. But then I realized there was SO MUCH misinformation out there that actual experts weighing in would help bend the average towards truth, so maybe it’s worth it. Because the misinformation was mostly, “OMG it must be vaccines.”

Like…let us count the ways this is extremely stupid. First, while most players are vaccinated, there is no vaccine mandate for players in the NFL, so no one even knew whether or not Hamlin was vaccinated. As far as I can tell, Hamlin himself never commented publicly on vaccines – his social media was mostly about things like his toy drive for disadvantaged youth in his hometown, which was launched into the stratosphere after his catastrophe Monday, and I just wanted to slip that in because it is extremely wholesome and I love it.

Second of all, study after study after study shows that the risk of an adverse cardiovascular event following COVID-19 vaccination is extremely low, and far lower than the risk of such an event following an actual COVID-19 infection. For instance, here’s a study published in the British Medical Journal last summer that reviewed more than 8,000 cases across nearly 50 studies that found myocarditis and pericarditis risk was extraordinarily rare and predominantly mild.

Now, that study (and all the others) also found that the risk (WHILE RARE) was highest in young cis men, aged 12-29. I say “cis” only because I don’t know that there’s even enough data to talk about the effects on someone who was assigned male at birth but who transitioned at puberty, and I just want to be accurate.

That cohort of young men, we might imagine, is more likely to be dedicated athletes at some level, and so we might also imagine that the risk of those events would be, on average, higher in athletes. But still rare, and still mostly mild.

Yet, anti-vaxxers have decided that the COVID-19 vaccines have led to an epidemic of athletes dropping dead suddenly. So, when Hamlin collapsed on Monday, they seized the opportunity to control the narrative in that crucial time when EVERYONE was paying attention and NO ONE knew what had happened to him: obviously, he #DiedSuddenly (the name of an anti-vaxx propaganda movie) because of the vaccine.

Actual working cardiologist Dr. Peter McCullough even went on Tucker Carlson to spread this lie to his drooling, credulous audience, pointing to a letter to the editor he wrote in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology in which he claimed that “From January 2021 to the time of writing (presumably end of 2022), 1598 athletes suffered cardiac arrest, 1101 of which with deadly outcome. Notably, in a 38-years timespan (1966-2004), 1101 athletes under the age of 35 died due to various heart related conditions, 50% of whom had congenital anatomical heart disease and cardiomyopathies and 10% had atheroschlerotic heart disease with early onset.”

As Dr. Eric Burnett points out on Twitter, McCullough took that “38-year” number from a study that carefully defined which “athletes” they included and what qualifies as a “sudden cardiac death.” That study’s authors took pains to point out that the number of athletes they found was certainly lower than the true number who have died from cardiac issues, because of a lack of reporting data and their own strict inclusion requirements that insured every death they counted was truly due to sudden cardiac arrest.

And what does McCullough compare that to? A blog run by anti-vaxxers, ironically called “GoodSciencing,” which claims to list “1616 Athlete Cardiac Arrests, Serious Issues, 1114 of Them Dead, Since COVID Injection.” Burnett details some of these “athletes” who died of “cardiac arrests” “since COVID injection”:

A “27 year old sprinter who died from suicide”, a “24 year old cyclist who died from suicide,” a “49 year old former shot put champion who died in a car accident,” a “17 year old high school basketball player who drowned in a hot tub,” a “24 year old footballer who got myocarditis after covid and didn’t die,” a “26 year old footballer who died from leukemia,” a “16 year old hockey player (with unknown vaccination status) who had myocarditis following covid (and didn’t die), and ”a “69 year old man who was a keen runner who fell off a cliff,” which is horrible and tragic but darkly humorous that anti-vaccine extremists are so desperate they’d blame vaccines for a poor old man falling off a cliff. Remember in 2020 when these same people were screaming from the rooftops that doctors were blaming COVID for any death where someone HAD COVID even if it wasn’t the cause? They made up unhinged scenarios like a person with COVID dying in a car accident and becoming a COVID death? THEY ARE LITERALLY DOING THAT. THEY ARE DOING EXACTLY THAT THING THEY ACCUSED DOCTORS OF DOING AND THEY ARE DOING IT ON TUCKER CARLSON.

And the worst part is that all of their lies are based on exploiting truly tragic cases, in which the surviving family members of suicide victims are forced to say “no, it wasn’t the vaccine,” and in cases like Damar Hamlin’s, the victim himself is going to be subjected to this idiocy. And they’re going to distract from the very real danger athletes in contact sports face.

I remember 20 years ago reading about a Little Leaguer getting hit in the chest with a pitch at exactly the wrong time, in between heartbeats, in a way that would normally result in a bruise but instead resulted in a severe cardiac event in which he died. There was an immediate call for better safety equipment, and in the years since I was a player I’ve seen an improvement in the gear we give children playing baseball and softball, better protecting their heads and their chests.

If we had a large community of people back then screaming that the problem was actually demonic spirits, or whatever, it would have been a distraction. And it’s a distraction now when the demonic spirits are supposedly in our vaccines.

So I wish all the best for Hamlin’s continued recovery, and I hope that the anti-vaxxers don’t pull focus away from the true takeaway here: professional sports teams need to do as much as they possibly can to protect the athletes who are making team owners and league commissioners billionaires. I don’t know how this particular rare incident could have been prevented, but I do know that there continues to be a collective looking-the-other-way about brain injuries, and it makes me think that maybe there’s more we can be doing to protect the rest of these athletes’ bodies, as well.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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