Let’s get a couple of personal feelings out of the way:
- I’ve always liked Novak Djokovic. It dates to when I saw him play several of his matches at his breakthrough tournament, the 2007 Miami Masters. I was taken by the way he dismantled Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, paid homage to Monica Seles and played with a smiley-face vibration dampener.
- I have no doubt that he is well-intentioned. I also have no doubt that when you are as famous as he is and have a platform as large as his, being well-intentioned is not nearly enough.
For ages, there have been discussions about whether and when athletes should weigh in on other matters, like politics. Stick to sports, the naysayers say. But there’s a big difference between a high-profile athlete giving a political opinion and making statements on public health issues. If LeBron James criticizes President Trump, 40.9% of the U.S. population might not like it, but no one gets sick. LeBron’s comments don’t give anyone COVID-19, and certainly not diphtheria or polio.
But Novak Djokovic opining on vaccinations, supporting pseudo-science (he’s been doing that for years) and flouting even Serbia’s social distancing guidelines can get people sick. It already has. I, for example, could toss out some public health pronouncements in this blog, but the six people reading it couldn’t give a rat’s ass what I think and wouldn’t act on it. Djokovic, however, is one of the most famous athletes in the world and the most popular person in Serbia. If he gives bad advice, even really bad advice, someone will follow it. That’s why he has a huge responsibility with what he says and the example he sets — always, but especially during a global pandemic.
I think Djokovic is a bright, curious guy. But he takes short-cuts that he would never take in his training or preparation as a tennis player. If you have a platform as large as his, and you want to speak publicly about vaccination, you should read some light history. Even something in chart form might do the trick, though a period piece could be more interesting. Does he know that smallpox killed an estimated 2 million people in 1967 and was eradicated just over a dozen years later? If it weren’t for vaccines, tennis players would pull out of tournaments because of German measles, not groin injuries.
People are complicated, and Djokovic is no exception. I read his book Serve to Win, and a lot of it makes sense. Drink plenty of water in the morning. Be disciplined about sleep. Eat more protein later in the day and carbs earlier in the day. But then he marvels that a “researcher” made water turn slightly green by swearing at it and communicating negative vibes in its direction. And Djokovic rattles on about how putting a piece of bread or a cell phone against your stomach for a moment significantly weakens your arm muscles.
What are you supposed to think when you read all of that? Is Djokovic intelligent or an idiot? I think the answer is both. He’s generally intelligent, but he’s an idiot on the important stuff. Everyone, including him, would be better off if he just stuck to playing tennis.