Now that some more smoke has cleared, it seems Aaron Rodgers’s primary crime was failing to correct a public perception that he was vaccinated. Depending on your perspective, that action could be seen either as a mendacious individual trying to put one over on the NFL with the assistance of his club, or a player gamely doing what he could to avoid public scrutiny for a choice he felt was best for his own body.
For those who have yet to catch up: Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 this week and cannot play for at least another 10 days. This offseason, he told reporters he was “immunized,” though that was reportedly in reference to an alternative, homeopathic treatment Rodgers received for the virus and not an actual vaccine. Rodgers petitioned the NFL to have this immunization treatment recognized as a formal vaccine, which was denied (according to one person with knowledge of the situation, it is not believed that any alternative treatments outside of the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been accepted by the NFL and NFLPA joint commission). Another report from NFL Network suggested that Rodgers has been wearing a mask indoors at the facility, save for the public-facing instances in which he meets with the media and while on the sidelines wearing street clothes in preseason games that he did not participate in. (The Packers did not provided answers to questions provided by Sports Illustrated.)
Did Rodgers break league protocol in those instances? It is not entirely clear. In a statement provided to SI and other media outlets, a league spokesperson said: “Primary responsibility for enforcement of the Covid Protocols within Club facilities rests with each Club. Failure to properly enforce the protocols has resulted in discipline being assessed against individual Clubs in the past. The league is aware of the current situation in Green Bay and will be reviewing with the Packers.” The spokesperson declined comment when asked specifically whether Rodgers has been fined already for breach of protocol.
While NFL rules, require, for example, unvaccinated players to wear masks indoors at all times, there are some unvaccinated quarterbacks, like Kirk Cousins, who have behaved similarly to Rodgers during indoor press conferences, with a mask folded neatly to their side. One league PR representative said that individual city ordinances have made a difference in their policy, though when asked about social distancing exemptions during press conferences, the league doubled down on its mandate that all players must wear masks indoors at all times regardless of situation. Both Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson, who have been (somewhat) transparent about their unvaccinated statuses, wear masks to each indoor press conference. A message left with the city of Green Bay to inquire about their latest indoor mask guidelines has also not been returned.
And so, it seems, this is mostly an infraction we’ll all litigate in our own minds, until the NFL decides to either levy a fine or leak the fact that it had already fined Rodgers for his behavior before Wednesday.
Some may say Rodgers’s purposely intimating that he had received the vaccine, both by saying he was “immunized” and by seemingly drawing a distinction between himself and the players who were not vaccinated, is an example of having his cake and eating it, too. (“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,” Rodgers said in August.) He managed to float above the battlefield and avoid the “cancel culture” he has publicly lamented, an artful dodge of the criticism that has befallen Cousins, Wentz and Jackson. Meanwhile, by association, he got to appear publicly at press conferences as a player who had received the vaccine.
Others might say Rodgers may have just been wisely saying as little as absolutely necessary, which he is within his right to do. As high as the NFL’s vaccination rate has climbed, the skepticism among players about its efficacy and long-term issues related to their body is no secret. Especially this summer, some players privately discussed the vaccine more along the lines of a cost of doing business and not a gateway to a safer NFL. Put another way, it would not be surprising if more players, had they the resources, the clout and the willing set of buffers that Rodgers seems to have had throughout the process, may have done the same thing. While some players may undoubtedly bash Rodgers publicly, others may privately applaud him for refusing to play ball.
Along those lines, Pro Football Talk reported that there was a general manager who reached out with a tip that Rodgers was unvaccinated. It would seem players had to have known, given that they were in private meetings with Rodgers, who would have needed to be wearing a mask. Indeed, there must have been an entire locker room and an entire ecosystem of tangentially connected agents, coaches and trainers who were privy to this information and did not find it abhorrent enough to blow the whistle on. If the thought of Rodgers’s potentially catching the virus and exposing his teammates to it was so difficult to stomach, why didn’t anyone tip off the world before Rodgers’s positive COVID-19 test this week?
This is not a satisfying way to wrap up a confusing midweek news cycle. It’s also not a defense of the anti-vaccine stance. Established, renowned scientists with decades of experience have made great efforts to shape our public knowledge of COVID-19, and both the acceptable and unacceptable methods with which to treat it.
But this story has become a Rorschach test placed before us all, and we will never agree on it because we have not found common ground on the vaccine. But the NFL and NFLPA did agree on protocols before the season, and Rodgers made his choice not to get vaccinated with full knowledge of the consequences.
The strangest part of the story remains that a league which giddily spoke of the details of other COVID-19 protocol breaches seems to have been awkwardly silent about or completely blindsided in regard to one of its biggest stars until Wednesday’s revelation. Same goes for all of his teammates, whether because of a locker room code of silence, fewer media availabilities or simply a belief that he had done nothing wrong.
But we know how he was able to avoid the scrutiny reserved for players like Wentz, Jackson and Cousins for eight weeks: because he had seemingly answered the question, so everyone moved on.
It was a failure, it seems, across all the barriers in place for something like this to happen. Now, it’s up to the NFL to figure out a punishment befitting of a decision that so many people willfully ignored, or buried, or hoped would simply never get found out. That is no longer an option.
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