The man who wears number 12 for the Green Bay Packers is many things. Super Bowl champion. Reigning NFL MVP. Three-time first-team All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler. By far the greatest quarterback UC Berkeley has ever produced.
Or, as he would prefer to describe it, “immunized.”
As the NFL prepared to undergo its 101st season, the first in which a safe and efficacious COVID-19 vaccine was readily available, the central problem was how the billion-dollar league would handle players that wished to remain unvaccinated. The NFL Players association flatly rejected the prospect of a hard vaccine mandate.
The league’s solution? An “unofficial vaccine mandate” by way of differing protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated players. Under these expansive guidelines, unvaccinated players would undergo daily testing, be required to wear masks at all times within team facilities, and be prohibited from congregating in large groups. Most critically, after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, vaccinated players would be cleared to play with two negative tests, while unvaccinated players would automatically be quarantined and miss games as a result.
The goal of this protocol was to make being unvaccinated a competitive disadvantage. To some extent, the NFL succeeded. Browns QB Baker Mayfield acknowledged that being vaccinated posed a definite advantage for both individuals and their teams. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin argued that players who aren’t fully vaccinated aren’t “really thinking about winning a championship.”
As such, reporters bombarded NFL stars to question whether they had been vaccinated. Responses—and opinions—varied. A few players, like Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley, touted their refusal to get vaccinated with pride. But the overwhelming majority of unvaccinated athletes instead deflected. Quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, and Lamar Jackson consistently declined to divulge their vaccination status.
But the system as it stands was constructed to eliminate ambiguity. Players were allowed to waffle in public as they pleased, but if they were unvaccinated, then the appropriate protocols would still apply to them.
Which brings us back to the subject of Aaron Rodgers. After a late August press conference, reporters relayed Rodgers’s seeming confirmation that he had been vaccinated.
Except, of course, that we know this to be false. So what happened?
In a mind-boggling turn of events, re-visiting that prior exchange shows that Rodgers did not explicitly confirm anything at all. In the referenced press conference, Rodgers was asked, point-blank, whether he was vaccinated.
His response? “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.”
Rodgers followed by immediately stressing that “there’s guys on the team that haven’t been vaccinated,” in supposed contrast to his own status. Furthermore, when as a result it was widely reported that Rodgers was vaccinated, he made no attempt to contradict that conclusion.
In other words, he lied. There is no technicality, no devils-advocating or rules-lawyering of the English language, that can diminish that fact. Aaron Rodgers willingly and consciously lied to the general public about his vaccination status.
Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 last Wednesday morning, and, as a result, was slated to miss the upcoming Sundays game against the superstar-led Kansas City Chiefs. Initial reactions to the news thus mostly consisted of disappointment that spectators would miss out on a potential blockbuster battle between Rodgers and former MVP Patrick Mahomes.
But after reporters learned that Rodgers was unvaccinated, the conversation quickly shifted. Questions mounted. Rodgers had successfully deceived the public—but had he done the same to the Packers organization and the league as a whole? If so, how? Had the National Football League, with all its power, resources, and responsibilities, failed to verify—or even request—a simple vaccination card from one of its preeminent athletes?
The truth was both damning and wholly obvious. Though media members and fans learned last Wednesday that Rodgers was unvaccinated, the NFL already knew.
In fact, the NFL had known all along.
ESPN confirmed that the NFL was in the know that Rodgers was unvaccinated “since the start of the season” in September. Rodgers, who had already contracted the coronavirus in the past, “received homeopathic treatment… to raise his antibody levels” and then asked league officials whether that could serve as an equivalent to being vaccinated.
But despite both the NFL and the Green Bay Packers being well aware of Rodgers’s status, he was allowed to repeatedly flaunt the protocols as if he were vaccinated. Unvaccinated players are not allowed to talk to the media unmasked; Aaron Rodgers has been. Unvaccinated players are not allowed to travel with their team to games; Aaron Rodgers has been. On Halloween, Aaron Rodgers was maskless, dressed as John Wick and partying with teammates. Unsurprisingly, unvaccinated players are not allowed to do this, either.
There is no precedent for a player so flagrantly and routinely violating the COVID-19 safety protocols. Rodgers’s actions at minimum warrant substantial fines; so far, these have not materialized.
Perhaps the league has been fining Rodgers privately. If that were the case, this would still represent a failure on multiple levels. Rodgers’s supposed right to keep his vaccination status private does not supersede the rights of members of the media to make informed decisions regarding their own health. Not a single reporter who had attended an in-person press conference with the unmasked Rodgers had been informed that he was unvaccinated.
Additionally, the notion that Rodgers was merely getting fined, week by week, behind the scenes, defies common sense. Could every athlete who did not wish to conform to the strict protocols follow suit? The NFL is a league of millionaires—surely some would happily pay a weekly sum of a few thousand dollars to avoid daily testing.
Any punishment system worth its salt must take into account the outsize budgets of star athletes and plan accordingly. If Aaron Rodgers was repeatedly breaking the same rules, then, even if the NFL was adamant in keeping his disciplining private, it should have still either sharply escalated the fines or elevated them to a suspension. If league officials didn’t, then they were effectively culpable in Rodgers’ deceit.
And that’s the optimistic theory.
The other possible option is that the NFL, in wishing to appease one of their biggest names, has simply let Rodgers do what he wants to do. If that were the case, then the NFL would be valuing avoiding confrontation over safety within and outside the league. Sweeping this problem under the rug in the interest of maintaining friendly relations with Rodgers would clearly represent an atrocious failure.
But whether the NFL was secretly fining Rodgers negligible sums or ignoring the matter entirely makes no difference. Either way, there is no explanation in the days to come that will excuse this conduct. The NFL is the entity that should be held most at fault. It has failed to enforce the rules as they were meant to be applied. Who’s to say that Rodgers was the sole exception?
Aaron Rodgers has so far received intense criticism, which is very well justified. As I hope every UC Berkeley alumnus, like Rodgers, would understand, getting one of the COVID-19 vaccines is among the most important actions people can take in protecting themselves and others.
But Aaron Rodgers is one man who just took advantage of an existing system. This system is riddled with increasingly obvious flaws. It protects those with power. It creates protocols that are free to be ignored, so long as you throw the ball well enough and far enough to generate revenue for the league.
In the wake of the Rodgers revelations, some are calling for him and the Packers ownership to face severe punishment. They should. Hopefully, they will. But the entity most at fault—the National Football League writ large—will likely escape disciplinary action entirely.
Just look at the botched handling of sexual harassment and abuse allegations within the Washington Football Team this year. The league never even produced a written report of its findings. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the investigation concluded that “for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional.” What were the extent of those findings? The NFL refused to say.
Goodell’s excuse was that findings would not be released so as to protect the anonymity of those who stepped forward. But this, too, was a lie. Multiple women involved in the lawsuit have requested full transparency—and one, Rachel Engleson, said that the league had promised her confidentiality but made no indication that “there would be no written report.”
After the release of the initial report, zero people were punished. Rather conspicuously, after the ensuing backlash, an email demonstrating anti-Black racist rhetoric penned by a coach of a separate team, Jon Gruden, was leaked. The NFL released a public statement condemning Gruden. Gruden apologized, but somewhat predictably resisted calls to resign.
Just days later, a barrage of additional emails was leaked. In them, Gruden derided female referees, used homophobic slurs and bemoaned the drafting of gay athletes.
Most significant, however, was Gruden’s implication with Bruce Allen, the former President of the Washington Football Team—the very same one that had been under investigation. Leaked email exchanges between Gruden and Allen exposed Gruden as complicit in the pervasive sexual misconduct within the Washington Football Team. Gruden and Allen exchanged emails of topless women that included two Washington cheerleaders.
How were those explicit photos obtained? In 2013, Washington took its cheerleading squad to a photo shoot in Costa Rica. They were flown out—before their passports were confiscated and they were told that the photoshoot required many of them to pose topless.
This was one of the many disgusting incidents that necessitated an investigation into the Washington Football Team in the first place. Allen, the former President, was fired in 2019—for the team having a mediocre season, not for the treatment of women. Gruden, the head coach of a separate organization, was the only person who lost his job as a result of the NFL’s investigation.
After the league analyzed 650,000 emails, only Jon Gruden faced consequences. And those consequences were not directly inflicted, either: Gruden resigned after the second batch of emails were leaked. The league never directly punished him.
But they indirectly did.
It is not conspiratorial to suggest that the NFL made Gruden a fall guy for the league as a whole. He without a doubt committed severe wrongdoing. He is also not alone. There is an ongoing congressional probe that seeks to delve into this issue further.
Its success or failure will largely hinge on the actions of Commissioner Goodell. The New York Times recently obtained documentation stating that Goodell’s annual salary amounted to over 60 million dollars.
Why is Goodell paid so handsomely? It’s not to get booed on draft night, and it absolutely is not to stand up to the owners themselves. After all, the owners of the teams are the ones who write his checks.
Goodell’s main job is simple. Protect the NFL, its profits and its higher-ups, through whatever means necessary. It’s why he, or someone working under his guidance, leaked the Gruden emails in an attempt to move the spotlight away from Washington owner Dan Snyder. It’s why he and the league set aside any notion of decency to protect the petulant misconduct of Aaron Rodgers and keep his secret hidden for as long as possible.
It’s why, under Goodell, the league will never take the fall for its shameless delinquency. Rodgers’s situation is still unfolding, but it will proceed without a hitch and without implicating any higher-up in serious trouble. Already, preliminary punishments have been doled out: the Packers organization was fined $300,000, while Rodgers himself a measly $14,650.
This might full well be the end of the story. Even if there is further inquiry conducted, the Wash5ington example leaves little hope that any internal investigation will turn out differently, or that the league will, by some miracle, indict itself for its wrongdoings.
Which is a disgrace. Bogus science didn’t immunize Aaron Rodgers.
The NFL under Roger Goodell did.
Why does this matter? Global warming, a worldwide pandemic, crime, violence, corruption—who cares about one man, and the organization that shields him from his wrongdoings?
The thing is is that this isn’t just about one man. It’s about a football player, and about football, in general. This is not just a child’s game: it is a multi-billion dollar industry and, like it or not, one of the most integral parts of American society. Wars may start and end, cities can burn and disease can shut down entire functions of our daily lives, but every Sunday millions tune in to watch the NFL’s product.
The consequence is that the NFL will stop at nothing to protect this invaluable product. Goodell will defy congressional inquiry if that’s what it takes to not take accountability for his and the league’s own willful misdeeds.
And those are significant and numerous. The league has utterly failed to enforce its own coronavirus guidelines. In doing so, it continues to nurture the metastasizing scourge of favoritism, elitism and lawlessness that pervades the organization, down to its rotten center.
You want to cure a disease? Institutional homeopathy—incremental, microscopic bursts of change—will never be sufficient.
Root it out at the core.
Featured Image: Stacy Revere/Getty Images