Within just an hour of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin’s sudden collapse on the football field on Monday night, far right figures seized upon the tragedy to spread anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on social media.
During a Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals, 24-year-old Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after tackling another player. Medical personnel administered CPR on the field and restored his heartbeat, after which he was transferred to a nearby hospital, where he remains in critical condition.
As players and coaches of both teams gathered, some shedding tears and others circling in prayer, and fans expressed concern over Hamlin’s condition, figures on the far right immediately began spreading unproven claims that the COVID-19 vaccine was responsible for Hamlin’s collapse.
“This is a tragic and all too familiar sight right now: Athletes dropping suddenly,” said Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk on Twitter, referencing a conspiracy theory that has been spread by right-wing pundits and Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) that COVID vaccines are causing athletes to die on the field.
Other far right figures — including conservative former candidates for political office, pundits and anti-vaccine figures — also joined in spreading the lies. “Prior to 2021, Athletes collapsing on the field was NOT a normal event. This is becoming an undeniable (and extremely concerning) pattern,” wrote far right activist Lauren Witzke, the failed Republican nominee for Senate in Delaware in 2020.
Platforms like Telegram were flooded with similar comments, with some accounts citing disgraced cardiologist Peter McCullough, who has falsely touted ivermectin as a cure for COVID-19, after McCullough said in an interview that the vaccine was related to Hamlin’s collapse.
This anti-vaccine conspiracy theory is based on lies about the effects of the vaccine. There is no evidence that the COVID vaccines cause such sudden and drastic health problems on a widespread scale — and, in fact, it is contracting COVID-19 that causes people’s risk of cardiovascular disease to soar.
Though it is rare for athletes and young people to experience problems like cardiac arrest, it is still possible, and has happened in many cases before the pandemic ever set in; medical experts say that in young athletes, it is usually due to undiagnosed underlying heart problems, which may go undetected as a result of a lack of access to quality health care.
Research has suggested that professional football players are especially at risk of heart issues, due in part to the fact that football players are often encouraged to gain weight and use anti-inflammatory drugs to reach peak performance. Since Hamlin’s collapse, some commentators have called for higher scrutiny on the violence that is not only common but also encouraged in the sport.
The NFL players’ union emphasized that Hamlin’s health should be the foremost priority, especially after the NFL appeared to have taken over an hour to officially suspend the game after Hamlin collapsed.
“The NFLPA and everyone in our community is praying for Damar Hamlin. We have been in touch with Bills and Bengals players, and with the NFL,” the NFL Players Association wrote on Monday. “The only thing that matters at this moment is Damar’s health and well being.”