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Team USA Paintball player kicked off team after backlash over controversial TikTok

Professional paintball players said Jessica Maiolo's message, which some perceived as anti-vaccination and fatphobic, doesn't represent the larger paintball community.

Andrea Martinez had just woken up from a nap when she saw the video of her Team USA Paintball teammate.

Her husband had awakened her, telling her something was up with her team, as her phone "was going crazy," she said. Her teammates, who were competing on the East Coast, were frantically trying to contact her to alert her about the TikTok video that was setting off a firestorm.

Once she opened the video, Martinez could not believe what she was seeing.

Team USA Paintball indefinitely removed player Jessica Maiolo after she posted a viral TikTok video saying a child with Covid-19 needed a "treadmill, not a Covid shot."via TikTok

Jessica Maiolo, a Team USA Paintball member, had posted a 15-second TikTok video of herself in front of an image of a TV displaying a news story about a teenage boy suffering from Covid-19. "Ma'am, your kid does not need a Covid shot. Your kid needs a f------ treadmill," Maiolo says in the video, which has been removed. "That's what he needs."

"I saw the video, and I was really disappointed," said Martinez, 39. "It's not in line with me and my values and the things that I believe in, obviously." She said the video was extra disappointing because she was at home in Chino, California, battling Covid, despite having been vaccinated.

Maiolo did not respond to multiple requests for comment. She has apologized on her Instagram page.

The video, which NBC News viewed before it was deleted, has caused waves in the paintball community since it was posted Thursday, with some on social media deeming it anti-vaccination and fatphobic. Team USA Paintball indefinitely removed Maiolo from the team in the wake of the backlash.

"We believe that players must at all times consider the weight of their words, and align themselves with the values of our organization," Team USA Paintball said in a statement Monday, in which it announced that Maiolo had been removed from the team.

Paintball players from the San Diego Dynasty, a professional paintball team, said the video put the sport — which they said is largely a welcoming and warm community — in a negative light.

"A lot of people are paying attention to [paintball] right now, and it absolutely, 110 percent gives us a terrible image," said Leah Mumford, 24, a former paintball player, adding that the video "is absolutely not a representation of Team USA."

Some smaller organizations that are tangentially related to Team USA Paintball said they were inundated with messages and backlash, as well, even though they have no connection to Maiolo.

On her Instagram account, Maiolo posted a statement saying that she regrets the situation she has put her teammates in and that, given the chance to go back, she would choose her words more carefully.

"It was never my intention to shame any individual, my reaction to the story about the young boy actually comes from a place of deep fear that people believe they have little hope in the way of staying healthy and being in control of their own wellness," Maiolo wrote in a statement posted Monday.

But the damage, some in the paintball community say, might already have been done.

Alex Fraige, 38, and Ryan Greenspan, 39, who play professional paintball for the San Diego Dynasty, said that paintball is an inclusive sport and that Maiolo's message shaming someone for the way he looks is antithetical to the values they have learned playing the game.

"It's unfortunate, because one person's knee-jerk, crass, ridiculous opinion can reflect now on a whole community of people," Fraige said. "In no way does she represent the paintball community. Yes, she's a part of it, but she's not a spokesperson for it."

However, some paintball players said, some of the backlash the team has gotten for its handling of Maiolo's suspension and her ultimate removal largely stems from misunderstandings about how Team USA Paintball operates.

Those on social media who were upset by Maiolo's comments were further annoyed by posts on Instagram that showed Maiolo at a Team USA Paintball practice in Boston, after the statement saying she had been suspended was released.

Other players noted that Team USA Paintball, which is not a pro organization but rather a small nonprofit team with players from around the country, is not able to pay for its players' travel. Instead, players pay for their own travel and share things like rental cars and hotel rooms.

So when Maiolo was suspended while she was on the road, she had no choice but to stay with her teammates until they were ready to head to the airport. The team said that while Maiolo was on location during the practice, she did not participate.

Some who spoke to NBC News said they feel Maiolo's removal is a fitting punishment and that they hope people will not associate one bad TikTok video with an entire community of players.

"I think it was the right call," Martinez said. "If we're going to represent all people, we shouldn't be saying certain things and doing certain things. People look at us and they should feel proud. They shouldn't feel like this group doesn't represent us."