Bronny James, the son of NBA legend LeBron James and an incoming basketball player at the University of Southern California, collapsed while practicing and was hospitalized Monday. The young athlete “suffered a cardiac arrest” but “is now in stable condition and no longer in ICU,” his family said in a Tuesday statement.
This is obviously a scary situation for James and his family, albeit one whose national news relevance is limited to the subject’s famous father and the possibility that it might affect his own potential NBA career. But it was a clarion call to conspiracy theorists on the right, from online influencers to billionaire troll Elon Musk to hosts on Fox News, who immediately seized on the news to baselessly suggest that James’ condition might be the result of his having been vaccinated for COVID-19.
The conspiracy theorists draw a link between the rare vaccine side effect myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, and instances of athletes like James going into cardiac arrest. They claim this speculation is hidden knowledge that the media is suppressing for nefarious purposes, but it’s actually just stupid.
- “Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in young athletes,” according to the Mayo Clinic, which notes that “highly strenuous physical activities … can potentially put uncertain stress on the heart.” There is no evidence of a rise in athletes collapsing or dying from heart ailments since the rollout of the vaccines.
- Men’s basketball players and Black athletes are at increased risk for sudden cardiac death, according to a 2016 article on the condition in student athletes. This phenomenon long predates the development of the COVID vaccines — NBA player Reggie Lewis famously collapsed on the court during a 1993 playoff game due to a heart ailment and died after suffering sudden cardiac arrest while practicing later that year.
- Cardiac arrest is usually caused by arrhythmia or cardiomyopathy, not myocarditis, according to the Mayo Clinic. A recent study published in a journal of the American Heart Association found “no association between out-of-hospital cardiac arrest,” like that suffered by James, “and COVID-19 vaccination.”
- While myocarditis is a potential vaccine side effect — one linked to roughly 55 cases among young men aged 18-24 out of every million vaccine doses — the American Heart Association notes that infection with COVID-19 is itself a “substantially higher” risk factor for the condition than vaccination.
- Myocarditis can contribute to cardiac arrest, according to the Mayo Clinic, but the condition itself does not tend to occur suddenly, and a person suffering from myocarditis “would likely feel sick and not participate in the sport.”
But right-wing trolls and propagandists aren’t interested in the facts — they want to attract an audience and gain clout, and they know that vaccine conspiracy theories are an effective way to do it.
The right-wing media ecosystem is built to create and propagate conspiracy theories while sealing its audience off from contradictory information. Extremely online social media sleuths, hyperpartisan news sites, prominent influencers, and outlets like Fox spin out politically convenient yet factually absurd narratives, which then spread across that apparatus.
At the same time, right-wing pundits at Fox and elsewhere have helped fuel a political split over the COVID-19 vaccine by relentlessly arguing that the life-saving medication is actually dangerous and ineffective.
There are plenty of cynical, misinformed, or unhinged right-wing media personalities willing to tell their audiences that any negative health event sufferent by a prominent person is the result of getting vaccinated. And that’s what happened in the hours after James’ condition was first reported.
Musk, owner of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, was an early and prominent adoptor of the conspiracy theory.
“We cannot ascribe everything to the vaccine, but, by the same token, we cannot ascribe nothing,” he posted in response to a report of James’ cardiac arrest, “Myocarditis is a known side-effect. The only question is whether it is rare or common.”
Musk was responding to an account with the handle “@TheChiefNerd” that regularly posts about dangers posed by COVID-19 vaccines. The owner of the account replied to Musk by attributing their own father’s death to his vaccination.
But while Musk’s platform was ground zero for the conspiracy theories, they did not stay there. Other outlets picked up his remarks and either openly championed them or said that he was being unfairly criticized for posing a reasonable question.
Uber-conspiracy theorist Alex Jones celebrated Musk’s remarks. “Yeah, you can't stop the signal. You thought Alex Jones was a problem? Now you got Elon Musk, Tucker Carlson, and Joe Rogan on your ass,” he said. Laughing, he added, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. Praise God. Praise Jesus. Thank you for your holy spirit, Lord.”
OutKick, a right-wing sports website owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corp., published an analysis piece titled, “Elon Musk is right to wonder if COVID vaccine contributed to Bronny James’ cardiac arrest.” The author wrote, “We are not attributing Bronny’s collapse to the vaccine. Nor are we ruling it out. We cannot rule the vaccine out because the people in charge will not allow us to rule it out. Rather, they continue to dismiss and belittle anyone who asks the question.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity offered a similar take on his radio show. “People are angry at Elon Musk, because Elon Musk rightly pointed out that with young athletes, there has been a higher incidence of myocarditis,” he said.
Hannity acknowledged he had “no idea” if James’ condition was linked to the vaccine, but added, “I do think that we need to look into this issue of myocarditis more deeply, and aneurysms more deeply, and other impacts, and is any of it associated with COVID or vaccines? I don't know. But Elon Musk got eviscerated for suggesting that we ask the question.”
The baseless claim spread that afternoon to Fox, a frequent propagator of vaccine misinformation.
“People see these situations and it does raise questions about the vaccine because we saw some of what you talked about happen in some young individuals after that,” Fox anchor Martha MacCallum said of James’ condition. Reading Elon Musk’s tweet, she asked her guest, Fox medical contributor Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, “Is that a fair question to raise?"
Nesheiwat replied, “What’s more common in someone like Bronny James is cardiomyopathy, not myocarditis, but is it off the table? Absolutely not.”
Laura Ingraham, the network’s loudest and most prominent vaccine critic, chimed in that evening. Adding the issue to a supposed list of “questions we’re never supposed to ask,” Ingraham mused, “Why do so many otherwise healthy young men, especially, seem to be collapsing with heart issues?” before turning to James.
“Well, today, Elon Musk was pilloried for suggesting that the COVID shot might have had something to do with what happened to Bronny,” she said. “Now, he may be completely wrong. It's speculation. But we do know that myocarditis is a side-effect of the vaccine and given everything the so-called experts got wrong during COVID, we shouldn't condemn anyone who is asking questions as these cases seem to be accelerating.”
These uninformed claims have become common as the right grasps for attacks on the vaccination campaign. In January, NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed after going into cardiac arrest on the field. Despite the obvious alternative explanation that Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was a result of his being hit in the chest during a tackle immediately beforehand, right-wing media figures rushed to draw a link to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Hamlin’s doctors have since concluded that his collapse was due to commotio cordis, which the American Heart Association describes as "an extremely rare consequence of blunt force trauma to the heart that happens at exactly the wrong time in the heart rhythm, causing the heart to stop beating effectively.”
Hamlin has been cleared to return to football and will be on the field this fall. Hopefully, Bronny James will have a similarly swift recovery. By the time that happens, the right-wing conspiracy theory ecosystem will surely have moved on to new targets.