Athletes and Death by Vaccine: A Lie Spread with the help of a U.S. Senator

How the falsehood of athletes dying from coronavirus vaccines spread

Glenn Kessler

“Of course, we’ve heard story after story. I mean, all these athletes dropping dead on the field, but we’re supposed to ignore that.”

— Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), in an interview on “The Charlie Kirk Show,”Jan. 27

Johnson made this comment after he asserted that there have been “over 22,000 deaths reported in association with the [coronavirus] vaccines” — and then quickly adding “that doesn’t prove causation.”

We have explored before how Johnson routinely raises concerns about vaccines by citing data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a database co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Anyone can submit a report to VAERS, and the reports are not verified. The numbers are basically meaningless.

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In this instance, we are more interested in his comment about “athletes dropping dead on the field.” His staff says, as with his references to VAERS, that Johnson is just asking questions, not making factual claims.

“Senator Johnson stated he has heard stories of athletes dying on the field and those should be investigated,” spokeswoman Alexa Henning said. “The Senator’s point in raising these issues has always been that our federal health agencies should be concerned about reports on adverse reactions related to covid-19 vaccines and they should fully investigate and make their findings available to the American people.”

She provided a link to a website called Good Sciencing, maintained by anonymous people, that has a blog post with the headline, as of Jan. 31: “577 Athlete Cardiac Arrests, Serious Issues, 352 Dead, After COVID Shot.”

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Here’s the rub: This claim has been debunked repeatedly. The story of athletes dropping dead from coronavirus vaccines has its roots in mysterious Austrian websites with ties to that country’s far-right populist party, the Freedom Party. Those stories were then recycled by right-wing media in the United States and then eventually came out of the mouth of a U.S. senator.

As is often the case, a kernel of truth — some people have reported an inflammation of the heart muscle known as myocarditis after taking mRNA-based vaccines — has been exploited by purveyors of falsehoods. Medical research shows the risk of getting myocarditis from the coronavirus itself is about 100 times higher than getting it from a vaccine.

Let’s follow the misinformation trail.

A Danish soccer player collapses

On June 12, during the Euro 2020 match between Denmark and Finland, 29-year-old Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest shortly before halftime. Almost immediately, there was speculation online that the midfielder, who had seemed healthy, had a reaction to a coronavirus vaccine — even though his club football team, Inter Milan, said he had not been vaccinated.

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Lubos Motl, a blogger and physicist with a history of making false claims about coronavirus vaccines, tweeted that Eriksen had received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 12 days earlier. He claimed his source was a radio interview with Inter Milan’s chief medic and cardiologist, an interview that never happened and was quickly denied by Inter Milan and Radio Sportiva.

Motl deleted his tweet, but it was amplified by other vaccine skeptics who did not delete their tweets, such as Alex Berenson, a former New York Timesreporter, and Brazilian journalist Allan dos Santos. (Their Twitter accounts were later suspended, as was Motl’s.) The false claim quickly spread to Facebook, in many languages.

One entity that jumped on the story was Report24, a German-language website based in Austria. A commentary by a staff member identified as “Willi Huber” cited another Berenson tweet to claim that Inter Milan actually had started vaccinating players in March. (In reality, the Italian team did not schedule vaccinations until July, according to Italian news reports, before the start of the new season.) “If Eriksen was vaccinated with the Pfizer/Biotech vaccine, a possible side effect would be myocarditis,” Huber wrote.

Austrian websites fan the flames

On Sept. 14, another Austrian website, Wochenblick, posted a story with a provocative headline: “Dead doctors, dead mothers: Why have so many people suddenly dropped dead?” The article included a list of unexplained deaths, claiming that many appeared to be vaccinated and asserting that heart damage was one possible side effect. “Is this just coincidence, or could there be something that connects all of these deaths?” the article asked. If it’s related to the coronavirus vaccines, “there could very well be many more of these ‘unexplained’ deaths very soon.”

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It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. A few weeks later, on Oct. 4, Wochenblick zeroed in on athletes: “Young people die after vaccination — athletes suddenly collapse!” Deaths were becoming a “Twitter trend,” the article said, promoting a Twitter hashtag to collect reports of sudden, unexpected deaths. “The number of cases of this heart disease is apparently literally shooting through the roof at the moment,” the article said.

Correctiv, a German fact-checking organization, in September exposed how Wochenblick and Report24 appear to operate in tandem to spread false information, including attempting to influence elections in Germany. Report24 was created in March apparently by a group of Wochenblick employees after an editorial dispute.

But Correctiv concluded that virtually all Report24 authors “seem to use pseudonyms or do not exist at all,” and the listed addresses for both organizations do not lead to an editorial office. The address is also associated with another online site, Info-Direkt, that also publishes false reports. Correctiv found numerous links between identified people working for these websites and the Freedom Party of Austria, a link that is “little disguised” given the editorial tone and subjects covered by the three websites.Myocarditis can be a side effect of coronavirus vaccines. But experts agree that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the rare and often mild risks. (John Farrell/The Washington Post)

After Wochenblick focused on dead athletes, Report24 picked up the ball. On Oct. 28, under Huber’s byline, the website published what it claimed was “a long list of ‘suddenly’ deceased or seriously ill athletes,” more than 75 in the previous five months. Buried in the story was this caveat: “We do not claim that all of these people became ill and died because of the vaccination, nor that there is a proven connection in the case of vaccination.”

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The long list of Report24 articles on the coronavirus appears to demonstrate a bias against coronavirus vaccination. But in an email exchange with The Fact Checker, a person who responded to emails addressed to Huber said, “Our editorial policy is not anti-vax, it is pro-truth.”

“If there are studies available, which prove government claims regarding vaccinations are wrong, we will report,” the emailer wrote. “If there is trustworthy, independent proof, that vaccinations work, we will report. If we can prove that people died close after their vaccination, we will report.”

After an exchange of questions about the Correctiv report — which indicated Huber was a pseudonym — the emailer wrote: “Analyzing your style of questions and topics, you are part of politically biased fake news media, so our communication ends here. Sadly, you are not interested in truth but in leftist prejudices.”

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Norbert Geroldinger, managing director of Wochenblick, did not respond to a request for comment.

The ‘news’ travels to the United States

Report24’s post caught the attention of vaccine skeptics in the United States.

On Nov. 4, the HighWire tweeted a translation of the Austrian article to its more than 100,000 followers. The HighWire is associated with the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, which is headed by Del Bigtree, a major voice in the anti-vaccination movement.

Two days later, Granite Grok — run by what it calls “fire-breathing, right-wing, hard-charging, gun-toting, opinionated, outspoken, rabble-rousing, letter-writing, radio microphone stomping, Conservatives and Rational Libertarians” — also posted about the Report24 article.

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The report then spread across Facebook and on social media. On Nov. 10, it was fact-checked and labeled as false by PolitiFact as part of its partnership with Facebook. “The athletes listed in the German news story did not all die, nor did they all have heart attacks,” the fact check said, noting the caveat buried in the story.

But that same day, Wochenblick upped the ante: “At least 69 athletes collapsed in one month, many dead.” The article asserted that the mainstream media was ignoring the obvious connection to coronavirus vaccines.

By Nov. 16, the HighWire had produced a video titled “Why Are Healthy Athletes Collapsing?” that restated the debunked Report24 list. That led to another fact check by PolitiFact on Dec. 1 that flagged the video as false, limiting its circulation on the Facebook platform. A few weeks later, the HighWire reedited the video to remove names of players who had not been vaccinated.

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The headline was not changed, but a disclaimer was added: “To be clear, a causal link has not been established between the covid vaccine and the conditions of the athletes in this video. This video represents an ongoing investigation into the question ‘When have we ever seen this many athletes collapse on the field of play?’ ”

That same month, the website Good Sciencing jumped on the bandwagon, posting a list of nearly 200 athletes and almost 100 deaths — which quickly grew. On Dec. 6, the popular right-wing website Gateway Pundit reported on an updated Good Sciencing list that now claimed nearly 300 athletes had collapsed or suffered cardiac arrests after getting a coronavirus vaccine in 2021, with many dying. That list, apparently assembled in part with help from a closed “sudden injuries and deaths” Telegram messenger group, was fact-checked by and found riddled with errors.

Nevertheless, the list circulated “like wildfire” among players in Europe’s top soccer league, according to the New York Times, hampering vaccination efforts among players. Reports also spread that 108 FIFA soccer players had died in a six-month period in 2021. That was fact-checked as false by Reuters.

For fact checkers, it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. By late January, Good Sciencing claimed its list had grown to 577 players, with 352 dead. (Any close scrutiny finds links of deaths to a vaccine to be highly tenuous.) On Jan. 21, the HighWire posted a new video, titled “Healthy athletes are still inexplicably collapsing.”

Johnson’s staff suggested we speak with Ken Ruettgers, a former Green Bay Packers offensive tackle who started a website that collects information on bad reactions to coronavirus vaccinations after his wife suffered what he called “a severe neurological reaction” after her first Moderna shot.

“People are observing what they believe to be an increase,” Ruettgers said in a phone interview after emailing links to his sources: the Good Sciencing list, the Granite Grok post and a report on Wochenblick’s estimate of 69 collapsed athletes in a month. “Based on what we have been seeing and what the CDC has said, it is a legitimate question,” he said, referring to a CDC advisory of rare reports of mild myocarditis after vaccination, especially adolescent males and men under the age of 30. “I think it is a good hypothesis. Maybe something is there or it’s just our bias.” As he put it in a later email, “Bias (confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, etc.) plays a role in human and public perceptions and opinions,” so “further research would be a good action.”

But respected medical experts say there is no question: Contracting the coronavirus is much more dangerous to an athlete than getting vaccinated.

“Those lists are total misinformation. Most of the cases are from other established causes of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes, and some cases even occurred before the pandemic began,” said Jonathan A. Drezner, editor in chief of the British Journal of Sports Medicine who conducts research with the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, which monitors all cases of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and death in athletes across the United States.

“The risk of myocarditis from mRNA vaccines is about 1 in 20,000,” he said. “The risk of cardiac involvement in young athletes from [covid] infection is about 1 in 200.” The risk estimates come from peer-reviewed studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Drezner, director of the University of Washington Center for Sports Cardiology and a team physician for professional sports teams, added: “Importantly, myocarditis represented 4 to 9 percent of SCA in athletes before the pandemic began, so these numbers are well within what has been routinely captured for viral-related SCA.”

Dermot Phelan, director of sports cardiology at Atrium Health in Charlotte, says he constantly gets questions about these lists from players, coaches, teams and leagues.

“Sports Cardiology remains a small subspecialty, and I personally know most, if not all, of the main practitioners in this country. We discuss this regularly as we do not want to miss any issue that will put our athletes at risk,” he said. “None of us have seen a true confirmed on-field death related to vaccination. While there is clearly a very, very small risk of mild myocarditis with vaccinations, the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

This depressing saga shows how “just asking questions” is used as a get-out-of-jail card for those peddling falsehoods about the coronavirus vaccines. Any vaccine carries some risk, but these lists of athletes, often assembled by anonymous individuals with no apparent medical credentials, are sketchy and anecdotal; there is no baseline comparison that would put these figures in context. Caveats that would detract from the scare headlines are buried.

Meanwhile, these reports have had their intended effect: spreading fear among athletes about covid vaccinations. A responsible politician would determine the facts, not “ask questions” premised on unverified claims made by bottom feeders of the Internet.

Anyone who spreads this misinformation, in whatever form, earns Four Pinocchios.

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