Sports and rock as the path to herd immunity

Fans cheer on the Washington Capitals
Getty Images

Recently I’ve read:

  • A New York Times article that questions our ability to ever achieve herd immunity based on the slowing of vaccinations and the rapid appearance of new COVID variants.
  • That President Biden has declared that we will achieve vaccination of 70 percent of U.S. adults by July 4, 2021.
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City’s two professional baseball stadiums — Citi Field and Yankee Stadium — will now have normal seating to fans who have been fully vaccinated, while fans not vaccinated will be seated six feet apart.


The last is an example of what I feel — charitably — is ill-conceived policy. Pre-pandemic I regularly visited Yankee Stadium and occasionally visited Citi Field. In both venues part of the experience of being at a game in person was a certain level of raucous behavior on the part of fans — particularly between those rooting for opposing teams on the field. With the consumption of alcohol and heated competition, raucousness sometimes led to fist fights and fans throwing things at players and running onto the field. This was in our old world. 

In today’s world, fully 4 out of 10 U.S. adults have clinical symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders. All of us have been subject to on-going “amygdala hijackings” in which our brains tell us we are in danger and need to be prepared to fight or flee — whether or not a real danger is present. 

In this world, I envision myself standing outside Gate 4 at Yankee Stadium as two groups pass through security. At the four turnstiles on the right passing through are the vaccinated. At the four turnstiles on the left are the unvaccinated. Both groups are rife with anxiety. Emotions are contagious— so the two groups begin to infect each other — not with the virus — but the much more easily transmittable neurological mobilization to fight.

I’m not clear whether the fights begin before the two groups enter Gate 4, or when the unvaccinated see themselves sitting six feet apart in a row (which is about three empty seats in Yankee Stadium) and skipping two empty rows. I get a headache trying to figure out social distancing in a three-dimensional space.

So how about we take a slightly different approach?

I assume that we want to achieve herd immunity or better. The NYT article makes me concerned about doing that. The President is committed to getting there. Unfortunately, he doesn’t own any professional arenas or teams.

What if Major League Baseball said “Out of concern for the full enjoyment of the game and the physical safety of our fans, the logistics of having both vaccinated and unvaccinated fans in the same venue are simply too complex to be practical. As a business, demand for seats is so high coming out of the pandemic that we can certainly fill our stadiums with vaccinated fans. However, any fan who gets their first vaccination today or later, and becomes fully vaccinated will be offered a 50 percent discount to join in the National celebration of America’s most popular sport.”

What if rock stars, country stars, comedians said “Hey we really miss being with our fans. We can’t wait to be back with you in full arenas and concert halls. If we have to look out at a half-full house because of social distancing – we’re just not going to get the energy to be our best. So, anyone who gets their first vaccination today or later and is fully vaccinated before one of our shows will be our guests at the V.I.P. tent.”

What would that look like?

Well, I can tell you that there are people who are today adamantly not going to get vaccinated — until they find out they can see the Boston Red Sox play the New York Yankees for 50 percent off or the “subway series” between the Mets and Yankees.

My wife and I, as well as many others. have tickets for shows that were canceled by artists like Bon Jovi, James Taylor, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker.

If we leverage our love of sports and entertainment, we can defeat COVID and all have one hell of a good time. I can’t wait to get to Gate 4.

Now some quick points about the neuroscience of achieving herd immunity.

I already mentioned the amygdala’s primary job is to alert us of and prepare us to respond to danger. It puts us at a state of hyper-arousal that eventually wires us to be anxious and depressed. Communicating more threats doesn’t get us to change — and telling me I’ll be treated differently because I’m not vaccinated or that I’ll be sitting near unvaccinated people are both threats — it makes us more likely to lash out.

You may have heard of the Prefrontal Cortex or PFC. It starts right behind your forehead and is often referred to as the “rational” center of the brain. It’s a little more complicated than that. There are two competing systems in the PFC.

The first system is triggered by data — like only 32 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. This system referred to as the NEA perceives that data and closes down any motivation to change. It triggers negative emotions, self-criticism and focuses on dealing with immediate problems.

The second system is triggered by a vision for the future. This system — the PEA — inspires people to change.

So, flood me with data and I shut down to change and dig into my position.

Paint me a vision and I’m inspired to change. Help me imagine being back in Yankee Stadium in the 11th inning of a tied game between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Help me smell the hot dogs and taste the cold beer.

Paint me a vision of being back in The Beacon Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, MetLife Stadium to hear my favorite performer. Help me feel the music make my soul pulse and my emotions soar.

Paint me those visions and my brain will take me to get my vaccination so my soul can soar with a home run, the sinking of a three-pointer with the clock at zero, or the electrical charge of standing and swaying with the entire crowd after the second encore.

Leo F. Flanagan, Jr., PhD has more than 30 years of experience in studying and developing resilience at the individual, team, organizational and community level. He has responded to numerous disasters including 9/11, the Sandy Hook Newtown Shooting, and Hurricane Sandy. He led the development of a county’s first psychiatric emergency service. 

Leo also has deep expertise in the corporate sector and consults across a wide range of industries. He has held senior level corporate positions at Merrill Lynch, Willis Holdings and The Forum Corporation.  

Connect with Leo F. Flanagan on LinkedIn and visit www.centerforresilience.com. “Thriving in Thin Air: Developing Resilience in Challenging Times” is available in May 2021.