Aaron Rodgers Really Wants to Be Liked Again

Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

You know who’s behaving like a well-adjusted, normal, completely sane, almost likable human being for the first time in years? Aaron Rodgers. Welcome back, buddy.

Since the New York Jets traded for him back in April, Rodgers has been everywhere. And unlike in 2021 or 2022, his ubiquity hasn’t been accompanied by bad headlines. There he was, at Madison Square Garden for a Rangers playoff game, smiling for the masses. (He was back at MSG the next night for a Knicks game, hanging with Carmelo Anthony.) He danced to Taylor Swift at MetLife Stadium in an endearingly dorky way, accompanied by his buddy Miles Teller. He even went to the Tonys! On the practice field at the Jets training facility in Florham Park, meanwhile, he has by all accounts looked terrific, and fans are accordingly lining up to greet him in their Jets home green. The Jets are hoping Rodgers can be the savior of their long-suffering franchise — the same way they once imagined his Packers predecessor Brett Favre would be — and he has been gleefully playing the part.

Rodgers’s appearances out on the town are part of a well-orchestrated campaign by him and his PR apparatus. But what’s telling is that he’s making the effort in the first place. After all: Wasn’t Rodgers supposed to be a dangerous, rebellious, edgelord truth-teller? This is the guy who smugly (infuriatingly, really) lied about being “immunized” during the 2021 NFL season. The guy who thanked Joe Rogan for his “COVID-treatment plan,” who seemed to imply that Joe Biden isn’t a legitimate president, who wore a shirt on Pat McAfee’s show with the words Cancel Culture crossed out (a gift from his “pal” Dave Portnoy), who actually claimed, while railing about “blue check marks” on Twitter, that the government was releasing videos of UFOs to distract from the “Epstein Files.” Rodgers’s pandemic-era torching of his own reputation was so extreme that, at one point, State Farm, whom he has worked with since 2011, pulled his ads off the air. Remember, Rodgers was once so respected that he was seriously considered as Alex Trebek’s replacement on Jeopardy! and had the backing of many of the show’s fans. His transformation was the ultimate heel turn, but Rodgers, at the time, said it was just him finally revealing who he was all along. “I don’t want to apologize for being myself,” Rodgers told ESPN. “I just want to be myself.”

And yet he has been a very different person since he got to New York. He is acting like … a guy who doesn’t want to get canceled? Like a guy trying not to make waves?

There are both on-field and off-field reasons for this pivot. Rodgers had the worst year of his career in 2022 in essentially every major statistical category. His yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage were all down, and his interceptions were way up: He threw 12, after throwing a total of 15 combined in the previous four seasons. The Packers muddled their way to an 8-8 record, ending with a miserable loss to Detroit in which Rodgers looked listless, irritated, and very much like someone who was ready for the season to be over. And as sad as they were to say good-bye to a franchise legend, Green Bay had to feel fortunate to receive a first-round pick from the Jets in exchange; for all the talk of Rodgers’s supposed leverage at the time, New York was the only real feasible landing spot for a fading 40-year-old with foot problems.

As for off the field: Well, it’s one thing to make a big show of yourself on your buddy’s podcasts and it’s another thing to do it in New York, a town that hasn’t been cheering for you the last 20 years, and is desperate for at least one of their NFL teams to not be terrible. If you play the media right in New York, you can be Derek Jeter or Michael Strahan; if you don’t, you’re A-Rod. Rodgers appears to have calculated that coming into his new city swaggering and ranting about vaccines would put him on the defensive from the get-go: You’re not getting standing ovations at the Garden if you spent all day claiming Joe Biden isn’t the real president. (I’ve long argued that no superstar athlete should want to play in New York at all. Go to Florida, where there are no taxes, everyone will leave you alone, and you can play golf all year round — the three things athletes want most.) Rodgers, who in his pre-heel days was a savvy media manipulator, has made a smart calculation: just smile, wave to the fans, say “Go Jets,” and don’t say anything that’s going to get you on the front page of the Post. That might not be his “true self,” but it’s the one he wants to project. And if he does win for his sorry new franchise, no one is going to care about his thoughts on UFOs and Jeffrey Epstein anyway.

But I also wonder if this is all a little bit larger than just Rodgers. He’s far from the only athlete who has dialed back on overtly political stances in recent months. LeBron James hasn’t said a word about any political topic in more than a year and has disbanded his get-out-the-vote organization, More Than a Vote. Kyrie Irving, in the wake of his anti-Semitic video scandal that cost him a Nike contract and had people wondering whether he’d ever play in the NBA again, has stayed away from anything controversial long enough to sign a huge new contract with the Dallas Mavericks. Even the USWNT, perhaps the most politically outspoken team in American sports history four years ago, is focusing solely on on-field issues at this year’s World Cup. The athlete political movement many predicted in the wake of 2020 has not lasted.

Athletes have discovered what many of the rest of us know: Those years were exhausting. They’d like a break to focus on themselves and their careers for a while. Rodgers may still believe Joe Biden didn’t win the election and that all major news stories are designed to be a distraction from the Epstein scandal, but if he does, he has made a conscious decision to put that aside and just concentrate on football, and trying to be liked by the general public again, the way he once was, before all the madness. Will it work? If he wins, there is no question. And if he doesn’t, well, there’s always Joe Rogan down the line if he needs him. Either way: Rodgers, like so many other athletes of late, would like you to focus on what he did on the field now, rather than what he says off of it.

Aaron Rodgers Really Wants to Be Liked Again