The thing about Aaron Rodgers is that we all thought he was smart. More than that, we thought he was different.
That was, initially, the most shocking aspect of learning that the reigning NFL MVP and former Super Bowl champion had tested positive after refusing to be vaccinated. If Rodgers didn’t lie about his status exactly, he was at least purposefully misleading about it, calling himself “immunized” in August. (He also didn’t wear a mask in press conferences, as is required of unvaccinated players.) Rodgers was supposed to be the cool quarterback: the one who was actually sort of charming in his State Farm ads; the one who dressed up as John Wick on Halloween; the one who dated movie stars but wasn’t all Tom Brady about it; the one who had a freaking book club; and perhaps most un-NFL of all, the one who was willing to sit out a football season so he could host Jeopardy! (And he was good at it!) Rodgers felt like the superstar you could get behind.
He dismantled all that goodwill in three days. By the end of the weekend, Rodgers had lost all his health-care sponsorships, and those ubiquitous State Farm commercials were conspicuously absent from broadcasts. He was even mocked on Saturday Night Live, with Pete Davidson portraying him as part dumb jock, part Typhoid Mary.
Rodgers had generally been quiet after testing positive for COVID — until he appeared Friday on a bro-dawg sports talk show hosted by Pat McAfee, a former NFL punter and onetime Barstool Sports commentator. (Rodgers himself has a long history with Barstool and is friends with Dave Portnoy — the company’s founder, who this week was the subject of a report detailing alleged sexual misconduct — so perhaps we should not have been so surprised by any of this.) The interview on Friday confirmed that there was no misunderstanding, that Rodgers wasn’t a breakthrough case, that he didn’t have any sort of health exemption. No, Rodgers is simply as anti-vaxx as your uncle on Facebook. Attempting to explain himself, he quickly peeled away anything you might have admired about him, with his invocations of “cancel culture,” “woke mobs,” and media “witch hunts.” The whole thing almost made you wonder if he was having some sort of psychotic break.
Partly because he was perceived as having some intellectual heft, Rodgers was initially given the benefit of the doubt — and that’s on us. When he first tested positive, some thought it could have been a false positive. When that turned out not to be the case, and news broke that he was unvaccinated, some wondered if Rodgers were one of those athletes who had avoided getting the shot out of a warped devotion to his body — which is, after all, how he makes his money. Athletes are notoriously meticulous about taking care of themselves — no one is weirder about this than Tom Brady, though Novak Djokovic comes close, and several NBA players resisted the shot in the middle of last season out of a misguided fear that side effects would derail their season, or because they didn’t want to mess with their bodies’ rhythms midstream. (Even LeBron James, who ultimately got vaccinated, had played footsie with this idea.) But that wasn’t what Rodgers was thinking. He had just gone full Joe Rogan, to the point that he even called the podcast host — rather than, you know, a doctor — after his positive test. (He’s now taking ivermectin, of course.) It turned out Rodgers wasn’t just not the “smart” superstar quarterback; he was in fact another “I’m a critical thinker” idiot. And his dissembling is hardly an academic concern; football, after all, is a sport where huge men blow air in each other’s faces for three hours. (A suspension is surely forthcoming, which should only further amplify Rodgers’s groaning claims of a “witch hunt.”)
Again, this was on us. For all the talk about how athletes shouldn’t have to be role models, that they should be able to play their sports and just be themselves, we sure find every excuse to give them a megaphone when it’s convenient for us. We amplified Kyrie Irving’s voice when he was speaking out about police violence last summer, but very much want it quieted when he’s spouting anti-vaccine nonsense. (Irving’s stance on the vaccine — he claims to be against vaccine mandates more than the vaccine itself — is nonsensical but at least has a moral component behind it, as opposed to Rodgers’s view.) The solution is not to stop listening to athletes; it’s to recognize that they are human beings too, prone to falling prey to the same misinformation and egotism that the rest of us are. And to remember that the pandemic has brought upon a golden age of supposedly smart people acting extremely stupid.
With their selfishness, Rodgers and Irving have also given the impression that vaccine hesitation is a major problem in the NFL and the NBA, but it isn’t: 94 percent of NFL players are vaccinated, and the NBA rate is 95 percent. The rest of us should be so fortunate as to walk around amongst our peers knowing they’re vaccinated at such levels. Rodgers isn’t just a pariah now among people who believe in science; he might well be one within the NFL itself — as the league tries to stage a second season amid a global health crisis and does so with strict protocols that every other player, players without the status of Rodgers, have been studiously adhering to. This is surely what frustrates leagues, and players, the most: The vast majority of them have been doing everything right, doing what they can to keep the games going and value the safety of the people around them. It’s only a handful of people like Rodgers making it look otherwise.
But that’s the risk of perception, whether it’s a misconception about a sports league’s vaccination rate, or about a star quarterback who seemed superhuman, or like he might be worth listening to about anything other than how to play football.