Why Aaron Rodgers Felt Free to Mislead People

The Packers quarterback correctly assumed that a star like him could get away with bending the NFL’s COVID-19 rules.

Aaron Rodgers
Dylan Buell / Getty

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Updated at 5:10 p.m. ET on November 5, 2021

The Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving disheartened fans and disappointed their teams by remaining unvaccinated against COVID-19, but at least both athletes kept it real. Neither attempted to deceive the public about his status. Aaron Rodgers, however, made a conscious decision not to tell the truth.

Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback, will miss Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs after testing positive for the coronavirus. His absence—required under NFL rules for unvaccinated players who test positive—is a big deal in itself; the Packers have a 7–1 record and are one of the best teams in pro football. But the stunning news of Rodgers’s COVID-19 diagnosis has been compounded by what else it revealed: Rodgers had lied about his vaccination status, and his team had likely provided cover for his deception. Both the Packers and the league itself have stood idly by as the reigning NFL MVP apparently violated safety protocols and jeopardized the health of others around him.

Throughout the season, Rodgers has been seen maskless many times at indoor press conferences. Per the NFL’s coronavirus protocols, unvaccinated players are required to wear masks at all times inside club facilities, submit to daily PCR testing, and avoid being within six feet of other unvaccinated players while traveling or eating meals.

Until now, the NFL had successfully positioned itself as a leader on COVID safety. It instituted strict COVID-19 protocols with the assent of the players’ union. But Rodgers has put the NFL’s credibility in jeopardy. The situation raises the obvious question of whether other teams have been covering for unvaccinated key players. And it serves as another reminder that characterizing vaccination—or vaccine refusal—as merely a personal choice ignores the significant impact it has on others.

When a reporter asked him in August whether he was vaccinated, Rodgers responded, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.”

His subsequent comments about the issue were noncommittal. “You know, there’s a lot of conversation around it, around the league, and a lot of guys who have made statements and not made statements, owners who have made statements,” Rodgers said then. “There’s guys on the team that haven’t been vaccinated. I think it’s a personal decision. I’m not going to judge those guys. There are guys that’ve been vaccinated that have contracted COVID. It’s an interesting issue that I think we’re going to see played out the entire season.”

Rodgers’s use of the word immunized instead of vaccinated should have raised more eyebrows than it did at the time. In retrospect, his disingenuous comments hint at a specific kind of self-centeredness; he seemed to believe he was smarter than everyone else in the room. In that moment, Rodgers sounded at least more sensible than the Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who in July incorrectly invoked the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act when reporters asked him about his vaccination status. Prescott’s response became a running joke on social media because HIPAA prevents health-care providers and insurers from sharing a patient’s medical records without permission. It’s not a shield against journalists’ legitimate questions about an athlete’s health status.

Had Rodgers loudly complained about vaccination questions, at worst he would have looked silly. Now he looks selfish as well as dishonest for expecting others to indulge him. The NFL and the Packers can’t say they were unaware that Rodgers was endangering other people and skirting the rules. Numerous media reports indicate that both the Packers and the NFL knew that Rodgers wasn’t vaccinated, because he had petitioned the NFL to have a homeopathic treatment he’d received recognized as a formal vaccine. (That request was denied.) Before you protest that maybe NFL officials didn’t see Rodgers conducting press conferences unmasked, remember that the league scrutinizes its players intensely. It can spot when a player places a personal message on a headband worn during a game.

The Packers sure appear complicit in helping their star avoid any questions. By allowing him to go unmasked before the media, the team fed assumptions that Rodgers was vaccinated. If that wasn’t the case, then why did the team’s unvaccinated players—but not Rodgers—have to conduct their media interviews via Zoom? And because the Packers allowed Rodgers to keep up his vaccination ruse, why should anyone trust that they were actually making him follow the rules behind closed doors? Yesterday, Rodgers’s coach, Matt LaFleur, said he was “100 percent confident” that the Packers had followed COVID-19 protocols in “football spaces.”

LaFleur’s assurance should be met with some healthy skepticism. Meanwhile, Rodgers is done with being coy about having gone unvaccinated all this time. In an interview on The Pat McAfee Show today, Rodgers insisted that he is now “in the crosshairs of the woke mob” and wanted to defend himself “before my final nail gets put in my cancel-culture casket.” Indeed, Rodgers marked every box on the right-wing bingo card. He insisted that he is a “critical thinker.” He referenced Martin Luther King Jr. out of context. And he said he had taken ivermectin after consulting the popular libertarian-leaning podcaster Joe Rogan, who has said he took the veterinary deworming drug after contracting the coronavirus.

Rodgers also maintained that he is allergic to an unspecified ingredient in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and that he had avoided the Johnson & Johnson shot because he feared side effects. Of course, ivermectin has side effects too. Imagine how the Packers must feel knowing their $134 million quarterback took an unproven drug that the CDC and FDA are strongly warning against.

The NFL is now investigating whether Rodgers violated COVID-19 protocols, but the quarterback and his team should clearly face serious consequences—such as a suspension for Rodgers and a significant fine for the Packers. Besides deterring players from potentially endangering others, the league has to single out those who deliberately make a mockery of such a serious issue. If the league lets Rodgers and the Packers slide, it will prove the quarterback right. He was smart enough to know that the rules didn’t apply to a star as big as him.

This article has been updated to include Rodgers’s comments today.