On Monday, rapper Nicki Minaj shared a harrowing tale of vaccination gone wrong. According to Minaj, one of her cousin’s friends in Trinidad got vaxed for COVID and before he knew it, his testicles had swollen up, he was infertile, and his future wife left him before their wedding.
Minaj’s comments were part of a twitter thread about how the Met Gala’s vaccine requirement meant that she was sitting the event out this year. “If I get vaccinated it won’t be for the Met. It’ll be once I feel I've done enough research. I’m working on that now. In the meantime my loves, be safe. Wear the mask with 2 strings that grips your head & face. Not that loose one."
And immediately after that, Minaj retreated to her world-class scientific laboratory to complete the research that scientists around the world await with bated breath. The results of Dr. Minaj’s work on the safety of the COVID vaccine are expected to be published in the next issue of the American Journal of Epidemio-
Just kidding. She kept tweeting.
The backlash against Minaj was swift and wall-to-wall, drawing the condemnation of everybody from Joy Reid to Meghan McCain, two women who rarely agree on anything. Minaj was scolded in headlines for using her platform irresponsibly, ridiculed for failing to know the difference between correlation and causation, and brought to task over the fact that she was very much not in her lane even as she swung wildly at everyone from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to The Daily Beast for calling her out.
Some of this backlash was fair. Just as the world does not need her verse in “Monster” re-recorded by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the world does not need to hear Minaj’s anec-data-informed opinions on the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine, especially since it appears to be based on a lie a man told to blame symptoms commonly associated with having an STD on a vaccine that does not cause testicular swelling.
But some of it was unfair. Look, it’s hard to resist the siren-song of a celebrity believing a ridiculous story involving a cousin’s friend’s allegedly enormous balls. I get why, if this incident didn’t involve dissemination of misinformation about a deadly global pandemic, this would be very funny. But at least Nicki Minaj advocates masking. At least she sort of acknowledged that vaccines prevent serious illness among the vaccinated most of the time. At least she doesn’t think the virus is a hoax. (Although, given all of the other bad press around people in her circles, perhaps now would have been a good time for Minaj to avoid drawing even more attention to herself.)
Minaj is far from the only celebrity with bad opinions about public health that would have been better left unshared. Leticia Wright, Jim Brewer, Joe Rogan, and rapper Offset have all opened their mouths and proven that they’d fail a seventh grade science test.
Chet Hanks—who would be just some loser who gives off the vibe that he’s gotten into a fight in a Señor Frog’s before if his parents weren’t Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson—also railed against the vaccine this summer. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said during a very loud Instagram video. “I’ve never had Covid. They ain’t sticking me with that motherfucking needle. It’s the motherfucking flu. Get over it.” While Chet Hanks has never had COVID, the same can’t be said for his parents, who very publicly suffered from the disease at the beginning of the pandemic. According to his father, his mother was so sick that she had to crawl to the bathroom. Perhaps her son screaming “GET OVER IT” is what finally cured her.
These anti-vax celebrities, rightfully, have been dragged by a public that is tired of having their quality of life diminished by a vocal, insane minority.
But what is the line between reporting a celebrity’s wrongness and amplifying it? Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls made it directly from Twitter to Fox News by the time most people had gone to bed last night, and Fox News has a direct line to the addled memory banks of most of America’s most prolific Facebook misinformers, which means that Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls will be ping ponging around the brains of anti-vaxxers like the Delta variant through their nasal cavities, prolonging our infection of misinformation.
Every corner of media that covers celebrity has this problem. I can think of at least half a dozen high-level athletes who have spouted much more dangerous and stupid nonsense about the COVID vaccines than Minaj, often with much less backlash than she received. Although some commentators, players, and coaches have pushed back, sports media has been incredibly tolerant of dangerous idiots over the course of the pandemic.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic has mouthed off multiple times about COVID-19. His flouting of social distancing guidelines may have caused at least one outbreak. He has refused to be vaccinated. Djokovic still recycles the same publicist-buffed “choice” bullshit when asked about vaccines, and outlets still treat him like a person who should have his opinions about COVID disseminated through interviews. This summer, Sports Illustrated tiptoed around his contributions to the COVID conversation, characterizing his as a “complicated reputation,” a toothless phrase that sounds like it was volleyed back and forth across Google Translate a few times. Is it necessary to know the ins and outs of Djokovic’s goofy jock beliefs about coronavirus immunity? Is it useful to the public for journalists to keep asking him about it?
Even though, as of a month ago, more than nine in 10 NFL players had received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, a disproportionate amount of the oxygen in the room is going to the proudly unvaccinated—much like it is in American hospitals. The Buffalo Bills’ Cole Beasley and the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins have been asked to weigh in over and over on why they’re unvaccinated, despite the fact that neither man has any expertise in the area of epidemiology or public health. Cousins once endangered his team’s entire roster of quarterbacks and has defended his unvaccinated status by saying social distancing and plexiglass will protect them (it probably won’t). In August, Cousins told the media that he was still doing “research” on the vaccine. (Maybe he’s working out of Nicki Minaj’s lab.)
Why are sports journalists still asking Kirk Cousins about public health best practices? Nobody would think to ask CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky about how the Ravens can fix Lamar Jackson’s fumbling-during-clutch-moments problem, and her opinion on Jackson, even if incorporated into the Baltimore Ravens’ game plan, wouldn’t endanger anybody’s lives. Cousins, Beasley, and other anti-vaxxers cloaked in “choice” language like Sam Darnold give reinforcement to anti-vaccine sentiments among their fans, and could actually land people in the hospital. Or cemetery.
So, yes, Nicki Minaj, Chet Hanks, Novak Djokovic, and the rest of public health’s wrongest bitches deserve to be checked and corrected when they come out with urban legend-esque stories about somebody’s cousin’s friend’s nutsack. But we have to stop asking celebrities and athletes about epidemiology. They do not know what they’re talking about, and their poor publicists are probably exhausted.