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Seriously, what is Aaron Rodgers’s deal?

Aaron Rodgers, explained for sports fans and non-sports fans alike.

Aaron Rodgers standing on the sidelines in Jets gear.
Aaron Rodgers belongs in the Hall of Fame of football — not so much of opinions.
Kathryn Riley/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The first time I found myself wondering what the deal was with Aaron Rodgers was when his brother Jordan appeared on season 12 of The Bachelorette, which aired back in 2016. The quarterback skipped the all-important family visit, raising some questions, but instead of glossing over it, the show insisted on leaving an open seat at the table where he could have been. Reality TV’s gonna reality TV, I guess.

Before that, in my world, Rodgers had simply been my team’s star quarterback, the one who took us to a Super Bowl victory in 2011. I do not claim to be the world’s biggest football knower, but when you grow up in Wisconsin, you sort of have no choice but to love the Green Bay Packers. Sundays in the Badger State are for two things: church and the Pack … and also beer and cheese, so, like, four. (As an aside, the Packers are the NFL’s only publicly owned team, another reason to love them.)

Family dynamics can be hard, I thought at the time, and really it was none of my business. But at the very least it seemed a little sad to think Rodgers was estranged from his family, and I did wonder why.

Cut to about eight years later, and the quiet suspicion that maybe Aaron Rodgers is a bit strange has morphed into a very public, very loud conversation, now that we know, well, a whole lot more.

Rodgers didn’t get the Covid-19 vaccine and misled people about it by saying he was “immunized.” He’s talked openly about getting into psychedelics and doing whatever a “darkness retreat” is. He’s had a string of relatively short-lived public romantic relationships, which is normal and fine, though his last girlfriend was maybe a witch? He regularly spouts conspiracy theories about Covid and vaccines and UFOs, among other items, and is chummy with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaxxer and presidential candidate. Last year, he challenged Kansas City Chiefs tight end and Taylor Swift’s boyfriend Travis Kelce to a debate about vaccines that was also supposed to include RFK Jr. and Dr. Anthony Fauci. Kelce declined.

Much of this oddball activity and commentary has taken place on The Pat McAfee Show, where Rodgers appears for “Aaron Rodgers Tuesdays.” Disney reportedly paid $85 million for a licensing deal to air the daily sports talk show on ESPN, which it owns.

The Pat McAfee Show was the setting of the latest “Aaron Rodgers said what now?” incident, when on January 2 he basically implied that ABC late-night talk show host — and also a high-paid Disney employee — Jimmy Kimmel is a pedophile. It’s been a whole thing, with back-and-forth between Rodgers and Kimmel and ESPN and Disney, for days. Kimmel called Rodgers a “hamster-brained man” and threatened to sue him. An ESPN exec called Rodgers’ comments “dumb.” Rodgers refused to say sorry and responded that the exec’s comments weren’t “helping.” None of it was.

On Wednesday, January 10, McAfee said that Rodgers was off the show for the rest of the NFL season, explaining that the controversy around it all was just too much. Was Rodgers back on the show the very next day to talk about outgoing Patriots coach Bill Belichick? He was. He called in from the woods.

Rodgers is an avatar for a certain slice of the current culture wars. He’s one of those types of guys who’s maybe a little too online, is doing a little bit too much of his “own research,” and is becoming extra out there in his opinions — and defensive if anyone disagrees or takes offense. He’s not the only type of this guy. See: Elon Musk, Bill Ackman, Joe Rogan.

Still, like those guys, Rodgers is an enigma. He is excellent at football. He is also an eccentric guy with some bad opinions. The ego and the football genius that make him such a sports star do not always help him navigate society, at least in the way that many people find to be acceptable. He may be the smartest guy on the football field, but he’s not the smartest guy in every room he walks into, though he seems to feel that way. (That being said, he did win Celebrity Jeopardy! in 2015.)

“As we’ve kind of learned, especially in the Trump era and even before the Trump era, any time an NFL quarterback steps out of their lane, especially into really, really wacky stuff … it’s quite, first of all, dangerous, because people listen to them, but also annoying,” said Mark Leibovich, the author of Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times and a staff writer at the Atlantic.

As they used to say in Green Bay, Rodgers is “a complicated fella.”

If you are not a football fan, listen, Aaron Rodgers is really good

Before we get to whatever Rodgers’s whole deal is personality- or opinion-wise, we should get this out of the way: he is a phenomenal football player and incredible quarterback. I am biased here; also, I am right.

“He is and will rightfully be in the conversation of one of the greatest quarterbacks who’s ever played the game,” said Kavitha Davidson, a sports writer who has worked at ESPN. “His situational awareness is wild.”

It wasn’t always clear things were going to work out this way for Rodgers. As Mina Kimes described in a 2017 ESPN profile of Rodgers that paints a quite different picture of the future Hall of Famer, his biography is “a long list of slights.” He got to be a good quarterback in high school, but Division I schools didn’t want him, so he played at a junior college near where he grew up in California for a year before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. He excelled at Cal and seemed on track to be a top draft pick in 2005, but then he wound up being picked 24th by the Green Bay Packers. There, he watched former star Packers quarterback (and more problematic guy) Brett Favre play for a few years. He took over as starter in 2008.

With the Packers, Rodgers won the Super Bowl in 2011. He is a four-time MVP and was named to the NFL’s 2010s all-decade team, among other accolades. Of his generation, he’s up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (and, for a long time, was seen as more benign and innocuous than both, especially Brady). His public image was, for much of his career, quite charming.

Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews celebrating their 2011 Super Bowl victory.
February 6, 2011, a glorious day to be a Packers fan.
Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

Rodgers has been generally liked by his teammates, though he’s had a reputation of having “his guys,” Davidson said. “That makes sense, a quarterback is going to have receivers that you trust, and a lot of that is personal trust,” she said. “For a lot of those guys, the stuff on the field matters the most. And he’s an extremely good leader.” However, he has been criticized for not developing as close of a relationship with younger players, and not everyone who plays with him has loved him or had the nicest things to say.

Rodgers’s last few years with the Packers and its leadership were strained, especially after the team drafted quarterback Jordan Love in 2020. The idea from the team’s perspective was that Love could watch and learn from Rodgers, as Rodgers did with Favre, but Rodgers wasn’t into it. “He was a little salty about it, and he kind of felt that, ‘I’ve earned the right not to be looking over my shoulder,’” Davidson said.

He played a will-I-stay-or-will-I-go game for his last couple of seasons in Green Bay — a stressful and frustrating situation for all parties involved. “Right after the season ends, he basically goes into a press conference and says, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be back next year, that might have been it.’ That’s a very weird thing for any athlete to do,” said Justis Mosqueda, producer for SB Nation’s Acme Packing Company, a site dedicated to the Green Bay Packers. (SB Nation is also owned by Vox Media.)

Finally, in 2023, Rodgers was traded to the Jets. Even though he was 39 at the time — now 40 — there was real speculation he could get them to the Super Bowl. However, he suffered a season-ending injury just minutes into his first regular-season game. He’ll almost certainly be back again next year to give it another run, and the Jets, who have literally had four different quarterbacks play this season, will welcome him with open arms.

“They built a team around what Aaron wanted to do on the offensive side of the ball,” Mosqueda said. But that injury also means he has a lot of time on his hands, for talking.

The Jimmy Kimmel dustup is really just the latest in a stream of ??? what is up with this man

So, let’s get back to the Kimmel thing. In early January, Rodgers suggested the comedian had ties to the disgraced financier and late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Referring to a since-released set of court filings about Epstein that have been branded the “Epstein list,” Rodgers said, “there’s a lot of people, including Jimmy Kimmel, that are really hoping that doesn’t come out.”

There’s previously never been any speculation that Kimmel had ties to Epstein — but he has been trading barbs with Rodgers for a while, focused on the athlete’s anti-vaccination stance. Kimmel was not thrilled at Rodgers’s little Epstein theory. He clarified on Twitter/X he never had any contact with Epstein, said the remarks had put his family in danger, and threatened to sue. Kimmel also did a monologue about the sports star. Rodgers responded on McAfee. He said he was glad Kimmel wasn’t on the Epstein list and isn’t “stupid enough” to actually accuse someone of pedophilia without evidence.

Rodgers didn’t apologize, but he did offer up a strange but fairly accurate self-assessment. “I’m not a super political person, okay? Do whatever you want. Conspiracy theorist? That’s fine, because if you look at the track record of conspiracy theorists in the last few years, they’ve been wrong about a lot of things,” he said. And then he complained about the media and cancel culture and said he does not “give a shit” about what people say about him, which … sure.

Finally, on Wednesday, January 10, McAfee said that Aaron Rodgers would no longer be appearing on his show for the rest of the NFL season. He said the show was “very lucky” to get a chance to talk to Rodgers and that he’s obviously a “massive piece of the NFL story” and acknowledged “some of his thoughts and opinions … do piss off a lot of people.” McAfee sounded relieved to be away from the drama. “I’m pumped that that is no longer going to be every single Wednesday of my life, which it has been for the last few weeks of my life,” he said.

As mentioned, Rodgers did appear on the show the very next day to talk about Belichick, the explanation being that he was the last person the outgoing Patriots coach talked to on the football field. In a tweet on Wednesday, McAfee had said that Rodgers would make “random surprise welcomed pop ins during big events or offseason adventures.” Belichick’s breakup with the Patriots is, indeed, a big event, but you have to admit the timing is funny.

An ESPN rep declined to comment for this story.

Aaron Rodgers is kind of unexplainable, and whatever the case, he’s not going anywhere

For someone who is a passive football fan, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about Aaron Rodgers. And I guess that where I land often is that he’s a weird guy — sometimes in a way that’s harmless, sometimes in a way that’s offensive, and sometimes in a way that’s dangerous.

Rodgers is also overly sensitive and touchy. In 2012, he complained about a 60 Minutes profile of him, saying that he felt the editing of the piece “could have been done in a way that was maybe a lot more respectful of myself.” One part of the piece showed a fan telling Rodgers, who is 6’2”, that he thought he’d be taller, and Rodgers replying, “I don’t appreciate that.”

Mosqueda, from Acme Packing Company, told me that what specifically seemed to irk Rodgers in the latest Kimmel fight was that the comic made fun of him for going to junior college and not graduating from college. “He’s mentioned before that college professors at California treated him differently because he was an athlete, and he resented them for that,” he said.

Aaron Rodgers sitting on stage, with a headset microphone and a black leather jacket, smiling.
Aaron Rodgers on stage at a bitcoin conference, which tracks.
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rodgers is skeptical of the media — the 2017 ESPN profile describes him pulling out a recorder just as his interviewer does so he won’t be taken out of context. “There’s some horrible media outlets that ... you say something or do something, where there’s a story, and they just go with it and run with it,” he said at the time. He also seems to have gone on quite a journey about religion.

His estranged relationship with his family is a mystery. Bleacher Report reported in 2016 that Rodgers hadn’t spoken with his family since 2014. His father talked to the New York Times about it in 2017, telling the publication that “fame can change things” and acknowledging it wasn’t ideal that the family’s private business had become public fodder. “Airing public laundry is not what I would have chosen,” he said. Rodgers has said he doesn’t think it’s really appropriate to talk about the issue publicly. “A lot of people have family issues,” he told ESPN in 2017. “I’m not the only one that does.”

It’s not really clear whether the relationship has started to be repaired in any meaningful way over the years, though Rodgers’s father, a chiropractor, supported his vaccine stance. “I think he tried to probably treat himself naturally, like a lot of folks do. And there’s a lot of great natural things out there, which helps mitigate the virus. So I’m proud of him. I’m proud that he went that route,” he said.

None of this is to defend Rodgers. His anti-vaccine stance is troubling. He mischaracterizes and questions established science, and buys into and propagates conspiracy theories that range from bizarre to scary. (He’s also joked that he’s “defying science.”)

Would ESPN, Disney, the NFL, and the Jets rather not be putting out AR-sparked fires big and small this much? Sure. But as the saying goes, all press is good press, at least to some extent.

“Any team and any league says that obviously they prefer the game to speak for itself and all of that. I think that, realistically, headlines are headlines,” Davidson said. Rodgers going down in the first game of the season was the worst thing that could have happened to the Jets, marketing-wise, and there was always going to be news about his comeback timeline. “The fact that he has had this platform on Pat McAfee’s show to keep him generating headlines beyond just his injury recovery, I think, has been a positive thing for Jets marketing.”

Many fans say they would prefer teams and players to just stick to sports (your mileage may vary on whether you agree with that). However, of all the controversies the NFL and ESPN have to deal with — the danger of the sport, sexual assault, race issues — a quarterback saying bizarre stuff is not on the top of its crisis list. “What the Aaron Rodgers thing brought to bear was that there is a very specific type of politics that’s okay to bring up in the context of sports, even when some of the things are wild and unfounded,” Davidson said. “Bringing up race too much or bringing up sexual assault too much, that has been heavily clamped down on.”

And so Aaron Rodgers is just going to be out there Aaron Rodgers-ing indefinitely. On the football field, that will hopefully mean great things — or at least a fitting end to an impressive career that he feels at peace with. As for everything else, we’ll just have to wait and see. I am sure there will be more episodes of the Aaron Rodgers show both on and off the field.

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