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Conspiracy theorists hounded Grant Wahl's family when he died. Now they're back

Grant Wahl's death at the Qatar World Cup set off conspiracy theories that persisted long after they were disproven.
Anne-Christine Poujoulat
AFP via Getty Images
Grant Wahl's death at the Qatar World Cup set off conspiracy theories that persisted long after they were disproven.

On December 9, the phone of epidemiologist and infectious disease physician Céline Gounder began blowing up with notifications, all relaying the same message.

Her husband of 21 years, soccer journalist Grant Wahl, had collapsed halfway around the world while covering the World Cup in Qatar. An hour later, Dr. Gounder learned that Wahl had died.

As soon as news of Wahl's death spread, so did rumors about what killed him. One theory was that the COVID vaccine was responsible. It wasn't, and an autopsy later showed that Wahl died from an aortic aneurysm.

Dr. Gounder gave interviews and widely shared the results of her husband's autopsy, but the rumors and conspiracies have persisted. And in the wake of Damar Hamlin's on-field cardiac arrest, anti-vax conspiracy theorists have returned with vigor.

Dr. Gounder spoke with All Things Considered host Juana Summers to share the experience of dealing with a tragedy and misinformation, all while also having worked as a prominent health voice during the pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Interview Highlights

On why she is speaking out again

I really had hoped that when I first put out a written statement, that I did several interviews on various different media platforms, that that would really put these conspiracy theories to an end. That by putting out the information, people who were asking for an explanation would have had their explanation, and that then I could take a breath and grieve in privacy. And then when Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest occurred during the game on the field, that unfortunately stirred up a lot of these conspiracy theories all over again.

I started to get messages again, as I had early on, from anti-vax conspiracy theorists who were blaming not only my husband's death, but also Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest, as well as the deaths of other young, healthy people recently on the COVID vaccines. And I felt, at that point, that I did have to take these conspiracy theories head on.

On seeing her husband's death used for misinformation

It felt so exploitive to use this horrible tragedy for me and my family, to exploit that for their own ends. Disinformation is a business model — make no mistake about it. And these are people who are trying to make money, who are trying to gain social media followers or subscribers on Substack or some kind of social status or power. And that really is just retraumatizing not just me and my family, but others who have been victims of this kind of behavior.

I do think people, especially close family and friends, were really asking questions. I was asking questions. It was really important to me to know what was the cause of death. And getting the autopsy gave me at least some partial sense of closure, of having an answer. But when people call for investigations, I think they really have to step back and ask themselves, what are they talking about when they say investigation?

Dr. Gounder wants her husband remembered as a powerful writer who used his journalism to fight for social justice.
Clive Brunskill / Getty Images
Getty Images
Dr. Gounder wants her husband remembered as a powerful writer who used his journalism to fight for social justice.

An autopsy by a medical examiner and forensic scientists, that is an investigation into this kind of death. And I think what some of these folks are really saying when they say they want an investigation, they want the criminal justice system turned against these unfortunate victims like myself and my family because they don't like what we stand for — in my case, a public health message. And they really want to punish us for what we stand for.

One one particularly troubling email that she received about karma

There was one of a few hundred, actually, as well as voicemail messages and other kinds of harassing messages. But this particular email blamed me for having killed my husband because he got COVID vaccinations, and said this was karma, that I was being punished for having done this.

I do believe in karma. I do believe in the idea that how we behave, what we put out into the world, impacts our experience of the world. And I think if you look at the outpouring of love and support for my husband and our family after his death, I think that shows evidence of karma. And he really lived a very moral life, believed in seeking out the truth in his reporting but also believed in issues of social justice and fighting for human rights in his journalism. And I think that is why so many people reached out in the aftermath — because of how he lived his life.

On how she would like Grant to be remembered

My husband was an amazing writer. His turn of phrase was lyrical. He was also a feminist. And when I say feminist, not just in terms of equality for women, but really across the board. And he tried to use sports journalism as a way of explaining culture, politics and fighting for social justice.

This interview was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo. contributed to this story

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.