Over the years, plenty of professional sports stars have made PR mistakes that hurt their public image. Think about Fred Smoot and all of the Minnesota Vikings players involved in the so-called “Love Boat” scandal. More recently, NBA star Kyrie Irving earned a huge backlash after revealing that he believes the world is flat.
The ubiquity of social media has only made it easier for sports figures to make the kinds of mistakes that end up hurting their public image. Just as Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, who recently made headlines after reposting controversial anti-vaccination content on his Instagram feed.
Lewis Hamilton’s racing career
The British-born Hamilton got his Formula One professional racing start with McLaren in 2007. He ended up finishing the season as the runner-up in the 2007 World Drivers’ Championship. He also set a number of records, including the most consecutive podium finishes from a driver’s debut (9), and the most points in a debut season (109), according to SportsKeeda.
Hamilton’s success continued in his second year, when he won his first championship, narrowly edging out Felipe Massa. At the time, that victory made Hamilton the youngest-ever Formula One World Champion. Hamilton continued to rack up podium finishes and race wins in his next four years with McLaren, but was unable to secure another championship.
In 2013, he jumped ship, signing a new deal with Mercedes and quickly winning back-to-back titles. He then won three more straight titles from 2017 to 2019, giving him a grand total of six championship wins — good for second-most all-time behind only the legendary Michael Schumacher.
Hamilton also deserves recognition as the first — and so far only — Black champion in Formula One. Over the course of his career, he has faced racism from European fans on numerous occasions. Hamilton has often voiced criticism of the league’s lack of diversity, while also encouraging his fellow drivers to speak up regarding current social issues.
The anti-vaccine controversy
Lewis Hamilton’s anti-vaccine controversy erupted in July, when he reposted a video originally produced by content creator King Bach. The video consists of a CBSN interview with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In it, Gates denies claims that a COVID-19 vaccine he is involved in developing has unusual side effects.
King Bach had originally captioned the video with the words, “I remember when I told my first lie,” thus implying that Gates was not being honest about the safety of the vaccine.
By reposting the video, whether intentionally or not, Hamilton associated himself with the anti-vaccine position Bach seems to be supporting.
Lewis Hamilton’s response to the backlash
In his defense, Hamilton was quick to address the controversy stirred up by his posting of the video. To begin with, he deleted the post from his Instagram account. He then released a public statement in which he stated his desire to clarify his position on the coronavirus vaccine — and, by implication, the entire anti-vaccination movement.
For one thing, Hamilton claimed not to have noticed King Bach’s original caption. And it is true that, aside from that caption, there is nothing unusual or controversial about the video itself — so it remains quite possible that he simply didn’t understand the intent of the original post. Hamilton then went on to unequivocally state to CNN:
“I’m not against a vaccine and no doubt it will be important in the fight against coronavirus, and I’m hopeful for its development to help save lives.”
Hamilton also defended himself to a degree, stating that he still felt there was a “lot of uncertainty” about both the side effects of the vaccine and its source of funding.
It remains to be seen how much Hamilton’s mistake will hurt public image moving forward. However, given the large amount of goodwill he generated through his advocacy in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it seems probable that he will weather this storm without any lasting damage.