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Duncan Keith has done a better job of undermining the anti-vax contingent than an infinite number of public-health press conferences, tightly argued op-eds or TikTok PSAs by preening right thinkers.Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press

This past week, Edmonton Oiler Duncan Keith provided an example of how the conversation between the vaccine hesitant and the rest of us can go right.

Keith didn’t want to get the shot. The NHL put into place measures that gave him a binary choice – get the shot or find it difficult, verging on impossible, to do his job.

After giving in, Keith had to absent himself from training camp to do a lengthy quarantine, which made his business everyone else’s business as well.

When he eventually sat down for his public intake interview, Keith was asked about his decision.

Fair to say that before Keith opened his mouth on that one, people had already decided how they felt about it. For some, he’s Noam Chomsky on skates. For most, he’s a guy who spends too much time getting expert health guidance from Reddit.

Keith came armed with talking points. You could see him blinking rapidly in the middle of answers, searching for a way to get back to his script. He said “immune system” a bunch of times, like he was saying “abracadabra.”

His reasoning amounted to this: “To have to basically, y’know, take the vaccine to play hockey, for me, was frustrating in a lot of ways, but at the same time, y’know, I wanted to … [blink blink] … I’m excited to be here. I’m excited for this opportunity and this challenge …” – yadda yadda yadda.

That word – “frustrating” – was picked out of Keith’s word salad and scare-quoted in a lot of headlines.

This created the most predictable cycle in sports news – we would prefer the entertainers are more forthcoming; when they do that, we yell at them for being too forthcoming.

Had Keith left it there, it might’ve been alright. But reporters kept giving him opportunities to circle back and Keith kept taking them.

“You definitely don’t expect a year where you’re in a position where you have to make a medical decision just to play hockey. I feel like that decision, it should be a choice.”

Keith makes it sound like you get jumped into the NHL gang by chopping off a couple of fingers, but okay.

It is a constant wonder that the people who are least trustful of our society and its norms are often the ones who have done best by it (Keith’s made north of US$70-million in his career). Presumably, this has something to do with being completely unfamiliar with the concept of doing things because you have to, rather than because you want to. The rest of us plebes know that feeling very well.

We could go all Ethics and Law 101 on Keith here. When you get in your car, a parking bylaw officer does not materialize at the driver’s side door and start yelling at you to put on your seatbelt. That’s a choice. If you choose not to do it and are caught, you get fined.

That’s how every rule works. It starts out as a choice. If you choose wrong, your choices become problems.

It’s not that Keith doesn’t like the choice. What he’s got an issue with is the problem – if I don’t get the vaccine, I have to quarantine every time I return from the U.S. after a road trip.

There were all sorts of choices available to him. Keith could’ve quit hockey and bought a car dealership. He could have continued playing hockey in an Edmonton beer league. He could convert all his assets to cash and build a tree fort out of hundred-dollar bricks.

The only choice not available to him was eating up a huge amount of cap space working part-time for the Edmonton Oilers.

So he made the best choice available to him.

What’s lost here is that, based on the common good, Keith made the right choice.

(In related news, Keith’s teammate Josh Archibald made the wrong choice and is now suffering for it. Archibald, who was unvaccinated, contracted COVID-19 at some point this past summer. He is now suffering from myocarditis – a known after-effect of the virus – and is sidelined indefinitely.)

The goal in the NHL, and every other workplace, should not be convincing anti-vaxxers they are wrong. It absolutely shouldn’t be wringing a public admission of guilt out of them.

The goal is gently coercing them to do the right thing. Not by force, but by eliminating their choices until only the attractive avenue left is the correct one.

This is where some will jump up and start yelling, “Role model! Role model!”

Okay, fine, what about that?

If it is true that some will point to Duncan Keith and his upside-down logic about immune systems as a good-enough reason to go unvaxxed, then the job here has been done doubly well.

Keith didn’t want it, he got it and now he is fine. Totally healthy. He will go on being rich and famous and making easier choices, like whether to get the new Porsche in cherry red or gun-metal grey or both.

In PR terms, one Keith is worth a hundred guys who got the vaccine without the whole “I need to do my own investigation, starting on page 13 of my customized Google search.”

Keith is proof that the anti-vaccine argument isn’t about principle. If it was, he’d have quit.

Like everything else in our culture, it’s about convenience. It’s about what people can get away with.

Keith pushed as hard as he could. When the other side pushed back harder, he caved.

The goal here should not be convincing anyone of anything. We’re past that phase. Now the goal is dispiriting the other side until they give up. One at a time if that’s what it takes, and the more famous the better.

On his own, Keith just did a better job of undermining the anti-vax contingent than an infinite number of public-health press conferences, tightly argued op-eds or TikTok PSAs by preening right thinkers.

Keith was on one side of the debate. When that became too much of a hassle, he crossed over to the other.

We shouldn’t be condemning Keith or anyone else for that. We should be congratulating them for their unwilling collaboration.

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