The unfiltered year of Aaron Rodgers

The unfiltered year of Aaron Rodgers
Video aaron rodgers espn magazine

SITTING IN WHAT has become the most famous living room in football, sipping a scotch and wearing a half-zip with a Masters logo, Aaron Rodgers couldn’t stop grinning.

Peyton Manning and Eli Manning had just asked him, as part of their ManningCast that streams during Monday Night Football, what some of the books were on the bookshelf behind him. What had he been reading? Rodgers, who frequently does interviews from his home, with his bookshelf in the background, was happy to share his tastes with the world.

“I’ve got ‘Atlas Shrugged’ here by Ayn Rand,” Rodgers said, trying hard to suppress a smile. The look on his face was a fairly obvious tell, especially to those who watch him being interviewed weekly. But this was intended for a different audience.

The truth? He had never read “Atlas Shrugged.” Rodgers wasn’t even aware of how to properly pronounce Rand’s first name. He picked it because it was the book with the biggest spine on his bookshelf. He suspected that alone might annoy certain people.

He was right. Social media erupted with chatter, thousands ripping into Rodgers because they assumed he was celebrating Rand’s most famous novel, a libertarian laudation of capitalism and rugged individualism. But in different circles, the selection was applauded, and Rodgers was hailed as an independent thinker. Rodgers found the whole episode painfully predictable.

“I was laughing about it before,” Rodgers said in an exclusive interview with ESPN two days before the Green Bay Packers were set to play the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional round. “I was moving some books over and replacing some things behind me, I was like, ‘Oh dude, I could never read this book.’ It’s however many pages. That’s how stupid this thing is. I’m reading some mentions or Twitter stuff and these people are loving me up. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, libertarian, blah, blah, blah.’ I’m like, ‘What the f-?’ And then the people on the other side canceled me. ‘That’s kind of trashy, he’s reading Ayn Rand.’ I’m like, I haven’t read it! And even if I did, who gives a s-? It’s a book. I can read something and not immediately have it overtake my personal ideologies. And that’s the problem with society, is everything is triggering and offensive. It’s wild.”

It was the perfect anecdote to explain a season that has, in myriad ways, been a distillation of Aaron Rodgers’ entire being. Both in his cleats and from the confines of his couch, he has behaved as though he feels blissfully unrestrained at age 38.

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He didn’t wear a mask when he met with the media, and hadn’t done so all season, a violation of the NFL’s protocols for unvaccinated players. But that wouldn’t become clear until a month later, when Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss the Packers’ game against Kansas City. (He was eventually fined $14,650 by the NFL.) Asked in the preseason whether he was vaccinated, Rodgers uttered what may go down as four of the most infamous words of his career: “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.”

The phrasing, he said on Thursday, was not misleading. It was in fact purposeful and specific.

“I had a plan going in for that question to be asked,” Rodgers said. “It was a pseudo witch hunt going on – who was vaccinated, who wasn’t vaccinated. I was in a multimonth conversation that turned into an appeal process with the NFL at that time, and my appeal hinged on that exact statement [immunized]. So what I said was, No. 1, factually true. I went through a multi-immunization process. And at the end of that, I don’t know what you would call it, I would call it immunized.”

Why did one of America’s most highly regarded athletes, a former “Jeopardy” host, no less, thrust himself into the center of the vaccine debate? The clues, if you were looking, have always been there. This is who Rodgers has long been – skeptic, alternative thinker and contrarian – dating all the way back to his childhood growing up in Chico, California.

He doesn’t think he’s a jerk, as some people have implied. All he’s doing, in his mind, is being true to his beliefs.

“I don’t want to apologize for being myself,” Rodgers said. “I just want to be myself.”

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One of those who shared it was Molly Knight, a journalist and author who has written about baseball for The Athletic and ESPN and now has her own Substack. Knight was getting ready to participate in an outdoor SoulCycle class in Los Angeles when she opened her phone and saw that “COVID toe” had been trending for hours. Curious, she clicked a link and read the Journal piece. It seemed credible. It quoted doctors. It was from a reputable news organization. She shared it to her own feed, adding what she knew was likely a well-worn joke: This is what happens when you get medical advice from Joe Rogan.

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“I think I was the 1 millionth person to make that joke,” Knight said. “I was definitely late to the party.”

She followed it up with a tweet encouraging people to take the pandemic seriously and please get vaccinated. She thought little of it from there. It wasn’t until hours later that she noticed Packers fans bombarding her mentions, telling her they hoped she would die.

“At first, I thought it was just another day of being a woman online in sports,” Knight said. “I even argued a little with a few of them, not knowing that Aaron Rodgers had publicly called me out in a press conference and said I owed him an apology.”

Rodgers, based on some texts from friends, was convinced Knight had written the piece. Noticeably agitated, he went after her during his weekly Zoom with the media, at one point thrusting his bare foot in front of the camera to prove it didn’t have the lesions mentioned in the story.

“That’s actually called disinformation when you perpetuate false information about an individual,” Rodgers said. “I have a fractured toe. So, I expect a full apology from Molly Knight and whoever her editor was.”

Knight, after she finally unpacked what had happened, was baffled. Her mentions and direct messages were being overwhelmed with venom. She even got a few death threats. The New York Post emailed to ask whether she had any comment. Knight deleted the tweet and typed up a message in her Notes app trying to explain that she wasn’t the author of the piece, but it only slowed the harassment.

“It honestly felt like the walls were closing in and I couldn’t breathe,” Knight said. “I felt like I had to explain myself to all these people, but there would be people who would only ever hear his press conference. They’re never going to figure out that it wasn’t me. They’re just going to hate me forever.”

Rodgers showed no remorse when he learned, in the coming days, that Knight wasn’t the author of the story. He said he had a “respectful conversation” with Andrew Beaton, the Journal staffer who wrote the erroneous piece, and appreciated him reaching out to the Packers to clear things up. “I still don’t believe there wasn’t an ulterior motive, but we had a nice conversation,” Rodgers said. But he felt Knight was “definitely not without blame.” He offered no apology, called her “opportunistic” and implied she tried to use the situation to her advantage.

Knight, meanwhile, was having panic attacks. Not only were Packers fans harassing her, so was the anti-vaccination crowd. She left her apartment for five days to stay with her mom, terrified someone might be inspired to track down her address and harass her in person. To Knight, it was the perfect example of one of the most popular plays that men run on the internet: If facing a sea of criticism, find one woman among your critics, single her out, then let your followers take it from there.

“Does he think that’s what I deserve for making a joke about him and Joe Rogan?” Knight said. “He had to know what would happen, that people would come after me. It horribly impacted my mental health. I think it would have horribly impacted anyone’s mental health.”

I ask Rodgers, months after the incident, if there was any part he wished he would have handled differently, given time to reflect.

“In retrospect, I should have read it first, and maybe it would have been different,” Rodgers said. “I wouldn’t maybe have mentioned her name. But she was piling on. It was a perfect storm for her to jump on this anti-vaxxer, flat-earther who ended up getting COVID toe and he’s got lesions on the bottom of his feet. So, she chose her platform to run with an absolutely ridiculous story.”

HE BECAME BOLDER with his throws as the season went on.

In a 36-28 win over the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau, he hit Adams in stride on a throw down the left sideline late in the second quarter that, if you studied it closely, seemed to defy the laws of physics. He’d let it fly without even planting his foot. The ball went 45 yards in the air, landing where only Adams (despite being double-covered) could catch it.

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“Both his feet were in the air,” said Dan Orlovsky, an ESPN analyst who has been friendly with Rodgers for 20 years. He called the pass to Adams his favorite Rodgers throw this season. “He just has this ability to throw with very little windup. I think most of us were taught as kids to think of throwing a football like throwing a hammer, but with Aaron, it’s like he’s throwing a dart. His ability to control the football is outrageous.”

To cope with the pain of his broken toe, he needed occasional pregame painkilling injections. But getting jabbed by team trainers seemed, to Rodgers, like an acceptable trade-off to stay on the field.

“Getting shot up before a game does a pretty good job of minimizing the pain,” Rodgers said.

He grew bolder with his opinions as well.

Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers wore a sweatshirt on McAfee’s show with the words “Cancel Culture” on the front, but with every letter crossed out, a gift from his friend Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports. In December, he was not happy when President Joe Biden, while taking a tour of tornado-ravaged towns in Kentucky, joked with a woman wearing a Packers jacket that she should tell Rodgers to get the vaccine.

“When the president of the United States says, ‘This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,’ it’s because him and his constituents, which, I don’t know how there are any if you watch any of his attempts at public speaking, but I guess he got 81 million votes,” Rodgers said Thursday. “But when you say stuff like that, and then you have the CDC, which, how do you even trust them, but then they come out and talk about 75% of the COVID deaths have at least four comorbidities. And you still have this fake White House set saying that this is the pandemic of the unvaccinated, that’s not helping the conversation.”

(Editor’s note: The CDC study found that in a group of 1.2 million people who were fully vaccinated between December 2020 and October 2021, 36 of them had a death associated with COVID-19 – and that of those 36 people, 28, or about 78%, had at least four of eight risk factors.)

On New Year’s Day, Rodgers went on Instagram to recommend a three-hour interview Rogan did with Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist who had been recently banned from Twitter and YouTube for repeatedly violating policies on spreading what was labeled as “vaccine misinformation.”

“3 hours you won’t regret,” Rodgers wrote, sharing a link to “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

Malone – who was involved in the early development of mRNA vaccines and DNA vaccines but says his role was “written out of history” by the hundreds of scientists collectively credited for their invention – believes that vaccine side effects are being withheld or suppressed by the U.S. government, likely at the request of pharmaceutical companies. He also believes what’s going on in America is a term called “mass formation psychosis,” akin to German citizens being manipulated by the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s.

At Rodgers’ suggestion, I listened to the podcast, trying to weigh its assertions with an open mind. But I was more interested in what Rodgers wanted people like me to take away from it. He gave an answer so impassioned, I could hear his voice in my head hours later, the steady drumbeat of his speech.

“When in the course of human history has the side that’s doing the censoring and trying to shut people up and make them show papers and marginalize a part of the community ever been [the correct side]?” Rodgers said Thursday. “We’re censoring dissenting opinions? What are we trying to do? Save people from being able to determine the validity on their own or to listen and to think about things and come to their own conclusion? Freedom of speech is dangerous now if it doesn’t align with the mainstream narrative? That’s, I think first and foremost, what I wanted people to understand, and what people should understand is that there’s censorship in this country going on right now.

“Are they censoring terrorists or pedophiles? Criminals who have Twitter profiles? No, they’re censoring people, and they’re shadow-banning people who have dissenting opinions about vaccines. Why is that? Is that because Pfizer cleared $33 billion last year and Big Pharma has more lobbyists in Washington than senators and representatives combined? Why is the reason? Either way, if you want to be an open-minded person, you should hear both sides, which is why I listen to people like Dr. Robert Malone, Dr. Peter McCullough. I have people on the other side as well. I read stuff on the vaccine-hesitancy side, and I read stuff on the vaccines-are-the-greatest-thing-in-the-world side.

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“When you censor and make pariahs out of anybody who questions what you believe in or what the mainstream narrative is, that doesn’t make any sense.”

It sounded like what he was saying mattered to him as much as any football game he’d ever played in, if not more.

Rodgers has tried to appreciate the journey that he hopes will end in the Super Bowl for the first time since beating the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. “Let’s treasure these conversations, these lessons, these times of adversity, times of joy,” he says. Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

IN EARLY JANUARY, the NFL announced that unvaccinated players, even with new guidelines released recently by the CDC, would still be tested daily by the NFL leading up to the Super Bowl. Rodgers, who is currently exempt from that testing because he contracted COVID-19 in the past 90 days, will see that exemption expire soon, before the championship. A scenario in which Rodgers tests positive in the days leading up to a postseason game would be a nightmare scenario for the Packers and the NFL, but with the omicron variant spreading rapidly through the American population, it’s certainly conceivable. In a season with so much madness surrounding Rodgers, the biggest twist might be yet to come. If that does occur, scientists like Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a renowned virologist and research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, shudder to think about how the debate will be framed.

“It will be, ‘Was Aaron Rodgers so selfish that he cost his team in the playoffs?'” Rasmussen said. “But it’s not about the playoffs, it’s about the playoffs of ending this pandemic.”

The influence of public figures who are staunchly anti-vaccination – despite no background in science or medicine – has played a role in prolonging the pandemic, Rasmussen believes.

“It’s profoundly selfish for Joe Rogan and Aaron Rodgers and their followers to say this is just a decision about you,” Rasmussen said. “Vaccines do provide individual benefits, but the bigger benefits of vaccines and masks and all the measures we’ve been taking is reducing the prevalence of COVID overall so we can end the f-ing pandemic. That’s what gets missed. This becomes all about Aaron Rodgers and what the risk is to him, and whether he’s being selfish or not, rather than something that affects all of us as a community.”

As eager as Rodgers has been this season to speak his mind and launch counterattacks against his critics, he insists he is closer to zen than he is to a state of permanent resentment. He has been dropping little hints, all throughout the year, that he has been savoring certain moments, just in case they are his last in a Packers uniform. He’s vowed to make a decision about his future not long after the season ends.

In Green Bay’s 31-30 win over the Ravens in Week 15, Rodgers gathered the offense together before the final kneel-down and delivered a short speech. He wagged his finger for emphasis as he spoke. He later explained to reporters that he wanted the players to savor the moment, to remember this emotion. True, they might have bigger goals, but the future could wait. Try to enjoy this, he urged them, at least for a few minutes. A career can rush past in the blink of an eye.

As I watched the scene play out, it reminded me, oddly, of a line from Rodgers’ favorite show, “The Office,” where Ed Helms’ character laments in the final episode: I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.

I asked Rodgers whether that quote had been bouncing around in his head lately, and he admitted it had been. He’d rewatched the series in its entirety (his third time through) early on during the pandemic, and a lot of it had been lingering ever since.

“Definitely that quote was on my mind,” Rodgers said. “That moment has always stuck with me, when Ed turns to the camera. Because just talking to some guys who moved on and retired that I was close with, that’s a common thread. … I think it’s just good perspective to have that we are in the midst of moments that we’re going to be talking about in 10 or 15 years. So let’s treasure these conversations, these lessons, these times of adversity, times of joy. So that it means a little bit more when we’re sitting on that bench in 20 years talking about the good old days.”

After 28 minutes of talking, our conversation had come to an end. He told me he appreciated the chance to answer my questions. Now it was time for Rodgers – controversial social commentator, former “Jeopardy!” host, media critic, free speech advocate, occasional troll and book club founder – to return to his day job: trying to win an important football game.