Senator Ron Johnson, R-WI speaks as Neera Tanden, nominee for Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), testifies during a Senate Committee on the Budget hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 10, 2021. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ANNA MONEYMAKER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
CNN  — 

There’s a new lie emerging from Covid-19 skeptics of late: Athletes are dying after getting the vaccine.

Former NBA great John Stockton drew national attention earlier this week when he insisted in an interview that “there’s 150 I believe now – it’s over 100 professional athletes dead, professional athletes, the prime of their life, dropping dead that are vaccinated, right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court.”

On Wednesday, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson got in on the action in an interview with Charlie Kirk, the head of the conservative group Turning Point USA.

“We’ve heard story after story, I mean all these athletes dropping dead on the field,” Johnson said. “But we’re supposed to ignore that. Nothing happening here. Nothing to see. This is a travesty. This is a scandal.”

Johnson’s office offered no specifics to back up his claim Thursday. “The senator has been pressing for transparency in government, especially in our federal health agencies, so that the American people have as much information as possible before they make health care decisions for themselves and their families,” a spokeswoman said.

It isn’t a scandal. Mostly because it’s not happening.

The rumor appears to have begun – like a lot of misinformation these days – from the pro-Trump website Gateway Pundit, which published an “article” on December 6 with this headline: “Report Shows Nearly 300 Athletes Worldwide Collapsed or Suffered Cardiac Arrests after Taking COVID Vaccine This Year – Many Died.”

The “report” on which the Gateway Pundit piece is based comes from a website called “Good Sciencing” – an anonymously-run website that is larded with anti-vaccine pseudoscience. “We are a small team of investigators, news editors, journalists, and truth seekers, now backed up by others, who are discovering pieces of information that we can investigate,” reads the website’s “About” page. “It doesn’t really matter who we are.”


Sourcing aside, it’s worth looking at the claims that these sorts of websites make. Which did. And found this:

“More than 300 athletes – including students, professionals, amateurs and retirees – from around the world were included. We reviewed publicly available information for each of the 19 professional athletes who either came from or played in the U.S. We found no proof of a causal relationship in any of the cases between the vaccines and the injuries or deaths.”

And there’s also this: “Although Good Sciencing claims COVID-19 vaccines were to blame for the deaths or injuries, the website provides no evidence in most cases – 16 of the 19 – that the athletes and former athletes were even vaccinated.”

What’s happening here is the purposeful and deeply misleading confusion of correlation with causation.

Take the case of baseball great Hank Aaron. Aaron died two weeks after receiving his first dose of the Moderna vaccine. But, according to the Fulton County medical examiner, Aaron, who was 86, died of natural causes.

Another commonly-cited episode by these vaccine conspiracy theorists is the collapse of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen last year during a major European soccer tournament. Immediately after the incident, social media lit up with claims that Eriksen’s collapse was tied to the Covid-19 vaccine. The only problem? Eriksen hadn’t been vaccinated when he collapsed. (Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest on the filed but has since recovered.)

What’s most remarkable to me about these sorts of claims is how easy they are to debunk. A single Google search can reveal that things like the Gateway Pundit “story” or some tweet or Facebook post your uncle sent you are, in fact, total and complete bunk.

It’s bad enough that anyone believes this junk. That a sitting US senator not only believes it, but feels confident enough in these false reports to pass them on publicly is just awful. And deeply irresponsible.

This story has been updated to include additional comment from Johnson’s office.