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Sports leagues are scrambling during omicron

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1 male tennis player, may or may not play in the Australian Open this month. That's due to his opposition to the COVID vaccine. Well, Djokovic is just one of several high-profile athletes that have made headlines with their COVID vaccination status. NBA star Kyrie Irving played his first game of the season last night for the Brooklyn Nets, but he won't be able to play in front of home fans because he is not vaccinated. Meanwhile, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is, by the way, the front-runner to be NFL MVP this year, he's become a right-wing media darling for not being vaccinated, among other things. Meanwhile, sports leagues everywhere are scrambling to find enough healthy athletes to fill out rosters during omicron's surge. So we wanted to talk about omicron and sports and vaccines with USA Today's Christine Brennan.

Christine Brennan, good to speak with you.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Mary Louise, great to be with you. Thanks.

KELLY: Just kind of a big-picture start to open this, sports in the time of omicron, how are various sports handling this wave of the virus so far?

BRENNAN: Yeah. Well, I think there's a technical term for this. It's called a mess, and it should be because this is something that even these incredible athletes can't defeat. And it catches up with them and catches up with the leagues, and I think they're trying the best they can. But as you said, there are all kinds of big names in all kinds of really difficult situations, many of them self-induced because they refuse to be vaccinated. So here we are.

KELLY: Wow. Here we are. And speaking of the hits just keep coming, I see the NFL has just announced it is looking into contingency plans for the Super Bowl. They're supposed to be playing in LA next month, but local restrictions against indoor events may make that impossible. We shall see. But it underscores just how difficult it is to plan for anything at the moment in any sport.

BRENNAN: Well, that's true. I mean, the men's - the No. 1 tennis player in the world right now is in a tiny room basically in lockdown being held.

KELLY: This is Djokovic in Melbourne arguing that he should have an exemption from the vaccine mandate and the Australian government saying maybe not.

BRENNAN: No. Well, right now, no. They wanted to deport him. He had to leave, and he's trying to actually fight that. Again, you know, he was going to saunter right into the Australian Open - right? - and play. The open itself gave him a medical exemption, which is really suspect, but they did. You know, he's been cavalier about coronavirus from the get-go, not socially distancing, holding events. We've all been through a lot. But Australia Melbourne - 260 days of lockdown there, and that's where the Australian Open is. If he does get in, you can imagine the booing. And I think his reputation will take a hit that may last the rest of his career.

KELLY: What about the situation here? I mentioned Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers quarterback, not vaccinated, and the NFL is meanwhile touting COVID safety protocols. How should we square this?

BRENNAN: Well, he's the face of the NFL and COVID in 2021 and 2022 and it's just awful. Let's just say it - Aaron Rodgers lied, he misled, and he's still playing football. You know, I guess you could say, well, sure, he's still playing. We're not electing Nobel Prize winners to be quarterback. But what a travesty this is. I think anyone who's unvaccinated and flaunts it, they look like they're maybe going to, you know, skate, so to speak, whether it's Djokovic or Aaron Rodgers. But one wonders how history will view people like this.

KELLY: It sounds like, to use your word from the beginning, Christine, a mess out there.

BRENNAN: Unfortunately. Unfortunately, yes. And I think it may get worse in the next few weeks before it gets better.

KELLY: Christine Brennan, columnist at USA Today, thanks so much. Come back and update us in a few weeks.

BRENNAN: I'll look forward to it, hopefully with better news, Mary Louise. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.