Aaron Rodgers: Odd Independent Voter in the Red Zone
If you’re not engaged with the Northern Californian sports bubble, here’s what’s happening with this exchange. Ann Killion writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, and is a longtime successful sports columnist. Type of person who would probably show up to a San Francisco Giants game and be fêted by their PR as a high-status personality. Incidentally, Killion’s always been nice to me in person, though that might end after this post. But hey, I say what I say for the subscribers, so here goes.
In Killion’s tweets, she is reacting to the Aaron Rodgers vaccine rejection controversy, specifically Rodgers’ lengthy explanation on the Pat McAfee YouTube show. Killion’s reaction of calling him “Butte County” isn’t all that veiled. Butte County, where Rodgers hails from, is a rural region, north of Sacramento. Trump narrowly won it in 2016 and Butte would be dead red politically if not for Rodgers’ hometown of Chico, where Chico State (officially California State University, Chico) is located. Not that the kind of person who reflexively looks down on a red county as some Deliverance outpost tends to be the kind of person who holds Chico State in high regard. I’m just noting that Butte, which is 1,677 square miles, has its nooks and crannies. As in, it’s not all one thing.
And it’s not simply explained or illustrated by one celebrity’s take on vaccines. Lest you think I’m reading too much into one offhand Butte comment from one columnist, here’s another example from Phil Barber (who incidentally has always been very nice to me, and comes off as a genuinely decent sort) of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
I saw a lot of this in my feed, in part due to regionality and in part due to my own college background. The reaction certainly wasn’t exclusive to the media. Many Cal grads with followings were all too eager to dismiss Rodgers as some Central Valley redneck who “didn’t graduate” and revealed his true nature by claiming “Butte Community College” in his Sunday Night Football introductions.
This same set used to hold Rodgers in high esteem. Killion herself had a different view of Rodgers just a few months ago. Let’s look at Ann’s favorable take on Rodgers as a Jeopardy! host, back in April:
That was from way back when Aaron Rodgers was a respectable Berkeley Man. Today? It doesn’t really matter that Rodgers donated a million to Cal football. He was always one of them, and now he’s finally revealed his true Butte colors.
To be clear, Aaron Rodgers has acted like an asshole on this issue and we’ll get into that. Many would foreground the vax refusal itself because the vaccine appears to reduce viral spread, i.e., Rodgers is increasing the risk to those around him. Solid case for that though there might be, it’s confounded by the CDC’s refusal to clearly make it. For instance, a CDC spokesman told The Atlantic as recently as November 8th, “It seems that at least early after infection, fully vaccinated people with breakthrough infection can be equally as infectious and more likely somewhat less infectious to others than unvaccinated people who are infected.” That’s not exactly definitive, though our highest health authority might be suffering from a lack of confidence after its director declared “vaccinated people do not carry the virus” in an April statement that would later be walked back during the Delta surge.
In that same Atlantic article, a piece that persuasively argues that the vaccinated likely spread less of the virus, you still had quotes like the following:
“I think that the jury is still out about the extent to which vaccination might reduce the risk of transmission, but we do know that transmission does occur,” Lisa Maragakis, the senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System, told me.
It’s pretty clear that the vaccine significantly curbs one’s risk of hospitalization and death from the virus, though that’s far less a concern for world-class athletes who often boast single-digit body fat.
There’s evidence to suggest that the vaccine reduces spread, though if the virus truly is endemic, then that means … actually, let’s not go there. The longer I talk about this, the farther I feel like I’m over my skis.
The top-down messaging on this subject has been a lot more confusing and inconsistent than many “Trust the experts!” types would acknowledge.
That combination of factors leads me to be less morally outraged by ballplayer vaccine refusers like Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers than some others are. Well, I’m also less outraged because I reject the premise that Irving and Rodgers have some immense moral responsibility to lead our society just because they’re good at sports. But on an individual COVID-risk level, these top-flight athletes almost certainly won’t personally clog ICUs, and while they might be increasing risk to others, the degree to which isn’t exactly defined. So I look at their choices as more eccentric than malicious, but your mileage may vary.
That said, it would be easier to receive Rodgers’ position as conscientious if he wasn’t such a demonstrable liar on this issue. First he lies to the media, saying, "Yeah, I've been immunized,” when asked about the vax. And hey, decent people lie in press conferences, it happens. But following up that lie (perhaps one coughed up under pressure) with one of your own discretion, to a mass audience?
Here’s Rodgers’ retelling of what he said to media, this time to Pat McAfee:
First of all, I didn’t lie in the initial press conference. During that time, it was a very, you know, witch hunt that was going on across the league, where everybody in the media was so concerned about who was vaccinated and who wasn’t and what that meant and who was being selfish and who would talk about it and what it meant if they said it’s a personal decision, they shouldn’t have to disclose their own medical information and whatnot. And at the time, my plan was to say that I’ve been immunized. It wasn’t some sort of ruse or lie. It was the truth. And I’ll get into whole immunization in a second.
Had there been a follow-up to my statement that I’ve been immunized, I would’ve responded with this. I would’ve said, “Look, I’m not some sort of anti-vax flat Earther. I am somebody who’s a critical thinker.” You guys know me. I march to the beat of my own drum. I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and the ability to make choices for your body, not to have to acquiesce to some woke culture or crazed group of individuals who say you have to do something. Health is not a one-size-fits-all for everybody. And for me, it involved a lot of study in the offseason, much like the study I put into hosting Jeopardy or the weekly study I put into plan in the game.
I think I’m getting some insight as to why Rodgers, for all his football brilliance, is reputed as being somewhat difficult to work with. There’s zero accountability for one’s own actions here:
It’s not that I lied; it’s that the media didn’t ask a follow-up question that would have revealed the truth. My lie is their fault, really, if it’s a lie at all.
Keep in mind, he could have leveled with the McAfee audience absent specificity, and made some offhand remark about how sometimes, as a quarterback, you’re less than revealing in a press conference. This was a friendly interview. He wasn’t being grilled. Instead he just voluntarily chose to just deny basic reality and blame others.
That tack probably wasn’t at all surprising to Fox’s Colin Cowherd, the nation’s preeminent sports radio talker and my guest last week on House of Strauss. Cowherd has discussed Rodgers’ flaws for years, in the context of team building. Back when the broader media was largely praising the quarterbacking savant, Cowherd was hip to how Rodgers could be a conceited and prickly leader. All of this criticism was balanced with the admission that Rodgers is also quite bright. Indeed, this was yet another “strengths are indivisible from weaknesses” scenario that we often see in sports, and Cowherd noted the indivisibility.
Cowherd’s main focus, by his own admission, is on connecting with a huge audience of sports fans. That likely has something to do with why exploration of Rodgers’ personality was rooted in football. And it still is. The latest Rodgers dust-up is described through the prism of Rodgers’ relationship with the Packers. It’s not an occasion to lecture his listeners on vaccines. It’s not an excuse to dump on Joe Rogan, who Rodgers consulted with after getting sick. It’s simply another example of why Rodgers can present complications to an NFL team while also being worth it due to talent. You see, Cowherd keeps his eye literally on the ball. You can find fault with that or suggest that there’s more in life, but it really does cut down on the piety factor that oversaturates other forms of sports media.
In this case, it also likely helps Cowherd keep his assessment accurate. Aaron Rodgers is arrogant, sort of a jerk at times, but clearly not stupid, as anyone who’s watched his many lengthy interviews with McAfee could see (FWIW, I watched em’ all last season).
Prestige media used to regale us with tales of just how smart the former Cal quarterback was, a branding that likely informed his turn as Jeopardy host. If we go by Rodgers’ Wonderlic or SAT score, we’re probably looking at a guy who’s in the 90th percentile range of problem solvers. Obviously, many of society’s worst ideas came from people who scored high on such tests, but that’s quite a different framing than to suggest a guy is a blithering yokel.
The yokel frame got quite a boost when Rodgers mentioned Rogan to McAfee, saying, “I consulted with a now-good friend of mine, Joe Rogan, after he got COVID. I’ve been doing a lot of the stuff that he recommended in his podcasts and on the phone to me.”
This admission, combined with Rodgers’ revelation that he, like Rogan, took ivermectin, sent shockwaves through the easily scandalized media space. From the prestige media characterization of Rogan, you’d think he’s some fringe lunatic and not host of the nation’s most popular podcast. Additionally, from some media characterizations, you might assume that Rogan and Rodgers are mistakenly taking a “horse dewormer” when they ingest ivermectin, as opposed to consuming an antiparasitic that healed enough humans to win its creator a Nobel Prize.
Whether ivermectin actually helps you recover from COVID is one claim, an unproven one as far as I know. But when you insist on calling the drug a “horse dewormer,” as some in the media do, you’re not actually trying to disprove its effectiveness in this respect. You’re simply trying to stigmatize, to insinuate that its consumers treat themselves like barn animals. It’s not about facts; it’s about fashion. And it’s part of the broader PR-ification of public communications in the social media age, where messaging is angled for maximum rhetorical impact versus honesty.
From a NBC News story titled, “Aaron Rodgers says he's unvaccinated, takes ivermectin and bashes 'woke mob'”:
Ivermectin, a drug generally used to deworm animals, has become a popular but unproven medication to treat Covid among some who oppose vaccinations. The Food and Drug Administration has not authorized or approved Ivermectin for use in preventing or treating Covid in humans and has warned against taking the veterinary form of the drug.
From an SB Nation story titled, “Aaron Rodgers’ COVID vaccine explanations are a collection of Joe Rogan and Facebook comments”:
Rodgers then rounded out the idiot buffet by saying he’s been consulting with Joe Rogan about taking the horse dewormer Ivermectin.
It’s as if Rodgers was playing Scattergories with people who believe confederate monuments should be preserved.
While there are well-intentioned media members who simply fear that Rodgers is leading the public towards bad health outcomes, there’s this other category of media people who see these controversies through the prism of a class conflict they intend to get the upper hand in. It’s a war between the educated enlightened and the credulous Facebook racist rednecks.
Among other sins, Rodgers is siding with the low people. Our former brooding intellectual is now talking like a normie, assailing “cancel culture” and the “woke mob.” I personally avoid saying “cancel culture” because it’s a confusing collision of verb and noun, but also, if I’m honest, because I know it’s branded as lower-class talk, the kind of phrase that’ll inspire prestige media eyerolls and further close them off to whatever is said.
Granted, the media hive mind will do this to any phrase that implicitly criticizes their role in the world, but “cancel culture” has achieved especially déclassé status. They might accept a less direct phrasing, such as, “Culture is impacted adversely when the scale of response inspired by social media causes people with dissenting opinions to be doxxed and fired,” but call it “cancel culture,” and forget it. You’re some slack-jawed brute from Butte at that point. Or worse, the nation’s most successful comedian.
As for the reigning NFL MVP, he’s just one guy, a flawed guy and an odd guy, but I couldn’t help but find aspects of his commentary to be illustrative of two broader dynamics. First, there was, of course, the PR-ification aspect where nobody respectable could acknowledge that the dude made some good points in between the head-scratchers and the MLK invocation. Yes, Rodgers is right that our leaders don’t really emphasize general health as a COVID prophylactic, even if it’s obvious that obesity greatly increases the risk of death from the disease. He mentions how pharmaceutical company financial incentives can potentially influence public policy. That seems like a legitimate concern, one not given enough airtime perhaps. He believes that the restrictions placed on unvaccinated players are more about coercive punishment than disease prevention, and I don’t know anyone working in sports who would disagree.
I’m only noting this because I watched the full interview and feel like there aren’t many places in media for people who saw it and thought, “Wrong at points, weird at others, but some of that made sense.” To me, Rodgers basically sounded like a modal bro at my local gym, but the interview is presented in mainstream articles like it’s Jim Jones’ final speech. And hey, I wouldn’t take medical advice from the bro at my gym, but I’m also not reeling like it’s the craziest thing I ever heard.
The other broader dynamic is a political one. With a hat tip to the article’s subject, I’ll call it “Red Zoning.” That it happens to Rodgers is of little consequence, but it is illustrative of a larger trend that might have something to do with Biden’s collapsing support among Independents that propelled a massively disappointing night for Democrats on Tuesday of last week. Set the COVID takes aside, if you can set them aside. Rodgers is very frustrated to the point of alienation with the public conversation; indeed, he’s sick of how it’s not a conversation at all. He hates how the media “cancels” anyone who expresses a dissenting viewpoint, and no, this isn’t just some exotic opinion held by a sensitive celebrity. It’s increasingly common, as people notice that there’s one permissible take on so many issues that are fairly complicated.
Rodgers doesn’t want to be a Republican. Indeed, in the McAfee interview, Rodgers took great pains to declare his political independence despite getting rejected by one side, saying:
The right is gonna champion me and the left is gonna cancel me. I don't give a shit about either of them. Politics is a total sham. I’m not going on Fox News, just like I’m not going to go on CNN.
His attempts at maintaining neutrality will fall on deaf ears among those dictating the discourse. Rodgers, with his critiques of “woke” and “cancel culture,” plus his vax refusal, has been zoned “red,” whether he likes it or not. Before, Rodgers was an open atheist who said Colin Kaepernick should be in NFL, and thus he coded as liberal. He was a practitioner of “subtle activism,” as The Washington Post put it in 2018. No more. Now he’s a practitioner of the less subtle but oh-so-pernicious “misinformation.” So the newly Red Zoned Rodgers, whether he gives a shit or not, now has more friends on the right than friends on the left. Maybe he maintains neutrality from here on out, but many people would naturally gravitate to the side that doesn’t hate them.
A similar dynamic happened to Rodgers’ friend Joe Rogan. His critiques of woke have gotten him Red Zoned in broader media, despite Rogan’s lack of stated political affiliation and his friendly interview with Bernie Sanders. Last weekend I read various sportswriters shit on Rogan’s podcast over Twitter, and you could tell they knew absolutely nothing about it. Among other things, the JRE happens to be a place where you can enjoy a professor’s fascinating research on sleep or hear theories on the origins of ancient civilizations.
Certain stigmatized summations of Rogan remind me of the André 3000 line defending the rap genre: “Oh hell naw! But yet it's that too.” The same goes for Rodgers and most topics of any complexity: Good points and bad, strengths indivisible from weaknesses.
Speaking of strengths indivisible from weaknesses, lately I’ve wondered if I’ve been blessed with a curse. You see, ever since I started writing for sports sites, I’ve received a particular sort of criticism from a contingent of readers. Snooty. Self-important. Likes the smell of his own farts, as South Park would say.
Wish I didn’t come off that way to some people, but I don’t think there’s much to be done about it. It’s something about the way I write, talk, and maybe even think. What I’m saying is, it’s a vibe, a sense that transcends whatever the content is. I could defend myself, argue that these readers have me wrong, but it really doesn't matter. That’s the vibe they get, have always gotten and aren’t going to stop getting anytime soon.
But I can make things worse, probably by an order of magnitude. Years ago, I realized that I really can’t be the guy who shits on the customer, overtly. If I started tweeting at sports fans that I’m better than them, or that I look down on them, or anything in that range, I’m screwed. It’s a weakness compounded, like if a slow quarterback kept trying to scramble.
I’m watching other media figures, people who might be naturally more adept at connecting with a broad audience, portray the NFL MVP and the nation’s most popular podcaster as these fringe political freaks, men who’ve no claim to reasonable fans. In most portrayals, there’s no concession that yes, Rodgers and Rogan have some reasonable critiques in between not giving the vaccine enough credit as a harm mitigator. One can say the latter is the most important takeaway while still acknowledging the former. You lose little by giving the take some balance. It just conveys a trust in one’s audience.
Millions of people tune in to hear Rogan and now Rodgers on McAfee. A sizable segment will come away with an impression at odds with the spiteful media caricature they see everywhere, only further validating the criticism of media they’ll hear on said podcasts. At its core, the criticism is this: They lie about what they can’t control.
Many, especially within a younger male cohort that disproportionately tunes in for such programs, are making affiliation choices right now. The dominant side’s politics seems like a suite of options that you must accept 100% or be damned by their symbiotic media apparatus. The less dominant side’s politics, for all its obvious flaws, seems more like a buffet where maybe you can pick and choose a bit. Which might be more appealing to the Independent voter right now? If you’re attitudinally against being controlled, which side is more attractive? The answer to this question is likely different from what it was back in the early 2000s, when conservatives had the whip hand culturally and politically.
By the way, Butte voted for Biden in 2020. In the current environment, it might just run right back into the Red Zone. Based on this week, I might even think it’s being chased there.