Aaron Rodgers Plays Ball With Podcasters and Conspiracy Theorists

Equipo
By Equipo
20 Min Read

Aaron Rodgers, perhaps the most gifted N.F.L. quarterback of his generation, spent a week last month in Costa Rica with a handful of fellow pro football players in search of transformation.

At a mountain retreat with views of the Pacific Ocean, they drank a psychedelic brew under the watchful eyes of a Yawanawa shaman and a documentary film crew.

Soon a news flash from back home — and then another — pierced the vibe. First, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the independent candidate for president, said that he was considering making Mr. Rodgers his running mate, a partnership that did not ultimately materialize.

The next day, CNN reported that Mr. Rodgers had suggested in 2013 that the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax or an inside government job. Mr. Rodgers responded on social media, saying that he had “never been of the opinion that the events did not take place.”

These are not the circumstances in which you expect to find an N.F.L. champion — sipping the brew, ayahuasca, in Central America while flirting with a run for vice president and batting away accusations of conspiracy mongering. It is certainly not what the team’s fans were imagining when Mr. Rodgers arrived last year as the would-be savior of the moribund Jets.

Football fans generally want low-complexity heroism from their standout players, and in many ways they get that from Mr. Rodgers: He led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory and has been named league M.V.P. four times. He has had a string of famous girlfriends (the former racecar driver Danica Patrick and the actresses Olivia Munn and Shailene Woodley) and endorsement deals with mainstream-American brands, like State Farm Insurance.

Under normal circumstances, a star quarterback resurrecting an iconic franchise in the country’s biggest media market would be just the sort of story line that has helped make the N.F.L. the biggest league in American sports.

But since joining the Jets, Mr. Rodgers has mostly distinguished himself by supercharging a bewildering off-field persona as an anti-establishment ideologue. If, at age 40, he is among the most well-known stars in American football, he may also be the most eccentric.

On podcasts both popular and obscure, Mr. Rodgers trumpets Mr. Kennedy’s candidacy, rails against the Covid-19 vaccine and extols the virtues of psychedelic experiences. He has vilified celebrities and urged listeners to question the motives of those who control the government and media, tossing around his suspicion that the ruling establishment is in cahoots with “Big Pharma.”

“We have a captured media system, we have a captured medicine system, we have a captured education system,” he recently told the commentator Joe Rogan on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” the most popular podcast on Spotify.

Just this week, Mr. Rodgers’s arrival for the Jets’ first voluntary offseason workouts sent fans into spasms of glee. But the next day, “Aaron Rodgers” was trending on social media for other reasons: A video in which he shared a theory that the government had manufactured the H.I.V. epidemic had gone viral.

“The blueprint, the game plan was made in the ’80s,” he said. “Create a pandemic, you know, with a virus that’s going wild.”

Outwardly, the Jets give no indication that his off-field endeavors are creating a headache, and a spokesman declined to comment. For them, Mr. Rodgers represents the team’s hope for success, even after he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon just four plays into his first game last fall and sat out the whole season.

“We’re kind of focused on football,” Woody Johnson, the Jets owner, said at the N.F.L.’s annual meeting of owners and league executives in Orlando, Fla., last month. “It’s football, football, football.”

Fans will tolerate a certain amount of unusual behavior — but they have limits, especially when their stars become the subject of ridicule from rival fans and TV personalities.

At least some Jets fans wish Mr. Rodgers would just shut up and play.

John Marchese, who lives in Florham Park, N.J., wonders if he might be setting up a post-N.F.L. political career. “Being extremely vocal on divisive issues is one way to do that,” he said. “But as a football fan, I just want to focus on football, and I want Aaron Rodgers to focus on football since his talent is undeniable.”

Yet Mr. Rodgers, who did not respond to a request for comment, increasingly does the opposite. Last week, his fourth lengthy audio interview in just over two months was aired (this, in addition to his regular appearances on “The Pat McAfee Show,” a podcast licensed to ESPN).

His more recent avocation is taking part in “plant medicine” ceremonies — Mr. Rodgers bristles at the use of the term “drugs” to describe psychedelic substances taken with the intent of having emotional and spiritual experiences. He credits ayahuasca, which he refers to by a nickname, “grandmother,” for helping him overcome fears that he traces back to the 1990s.

“I had this irrational fear of death that kind of stuck with me for a long time,” he said on “I Can Fly,” a podcast. “And in this first ceremony, grandmother just took it away.”

His use of ayahuasca won’t keep him off the field: It is not banned under the N.F.L.’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union.

To some observers, Mr. Rodgers’s behavior is head-scratching. “Athletes tend to go from famous to infamous by accident, not by choice, and quarterbacks in particular are as careful with their speech and public actions as any position in any sport,” said Dan Le Batard, a podcast host. “I don’t think we’ve ever heard a starting pro quarterback espouse anything like conspiracy theories, never mind choosing that route after having arrived at the gold mine of finally being safe enough to sell us State Farm insurance on television.”

‘Jeopardy’ and U.F.O.s

For most professional athletes, focusing on their game is a full-time occupation. Mr. Rodgers, who is paid more than $35 million a year, has intense outside passions.

He loves the television show “The Office” and appeared as himself in a 2013 episode. He has watched “Jeopardy!” since he was a child and in 2021 auditioned to become its host. He trained for his two-week on-air stint by watching more than 50 episodes of the show, he said in an Instagram video.

No other guest host matched his preparation, said Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer at the time. “That’s why he’s Aaron Rodgers,” Mr. Richards said.

The only special request he made to producers was to tour the set of “Wheel of Fortune.”

Mr. Rodgers said he solves about a dozen crossword puzzles each week, in part to stave off the impact of head injuries. “I’ve had a number of concussions, and you worry about your future brain functions,” he said in a March 2020 podcast.

At his 40th birthday party in December in New York, his cake featured a “Jeopardy” board, a desk in homage to “The Office” and the action movie character John Wick (whom he dressed as for Halloween) — in addition to a Jets jersey and a Super Bowl ring.

Not featured was the U.F.O. that he has told podcasters he spotted in New Jersey several years ago.

Mr. Rodgers grew up in Chico, Calif., participating in Young Life, an evangelical ministry, and attending a nondenominational church with his family. He told a podcast interviewer that Y2K represented a significant source of anxiety. “There was a lot of people in our sphere who thought that the world was going to end in 2000,” he said.

Even after the world did not end, Mr. Rodgers said he suffered from worry for years until he found ayahuasca.

Mr. Rodgers is also an avid reader. He has hosted a book club for Mr. McAfee, the podcast host who is a former N.F.L. punter. It included books like “Be Here Now,” by Ram Dass, and Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.

Dominique Dafney, a former tight end with the Packers, recalled asking Mr. Rodgers for a book recommendation. The next day the quarterback he grew up watching on T.V. brought him an inscribed copy of “The Alchemist,” a fable by Paulo Coelho about pursuing your dreams.

Mr. Dafney said that Mr. Rodgers had been the Packers’ undisputed leader, and teammates were both loyal and accepting of all kinds of views, including his.

“The guys who spent the most time with him speak highly of him, and it’s not by accident,” Mr. Dafney said. “He wants you to shine and get your opportunities. His thing was, like that book, enjoy finding that path and who you are as a person.”

But Mr. Rodgers has also gone out of his way to pick fights with public figures, maligning Anthony Fauci, the government’s former top doctor for infectious diseases, and George Soros, the billionaire funder of liberal causes. Last October, Mr. Rodgers publicly challenged the Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce — the star of a drug company commercial whom Mr. Rodgers refers to as “Mr. Pfizer” — to a debate about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines.

And in January, on the McAfee podcast, he casually suggested without evidence that the television host Jimmy Kimmel had ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender.

The blowback was swift. Mr. Kimmel tweeted that Mr. Rodgers fit in with “soft-brained wackos” and followed up with a monologue stating that Mr. Rodgers “thinks he knows what the government is up to because he’s a quarterback doing research on YouTube and listening to podcasts.”

Mr. Kimmel declined to comment.

Of all Mr. Rodgers’s outspoken beliefs, his distrust of vaccines has drawn the most attention.

In the summer of 2021, Mr. Rodgers reported to training camp in Green Bay and was asked whether he was vaccinated. “Yeah, I’ve been immunized,” he told reporters.

Three months later, Mr. Rodgers contracted the virus and acknowledged that he had not been vaccinated. Instead, he said he had undergone an alternative immunization process that the league did not approve.

The N.F.L. fined him, prompting Mr. Rodgers to lash out.

“I’m not some sort of anti-vax, flat-earther,” Mr. Rodgers said on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and the ability to make choices for your body, not to have to acquiesce to some sort of woke culture or crazed individuals who say you have to do something.”

More than two years later, Mr. Rodgers was still miffed. “I was watching the playoff game the other day and it said, ‘N.F.L. football, brought to you by Pfizer.’ I was like, yeah, I knew that,” he told Mr. Rogan in February.

Given Mr. Rodgers’s reach, his rhetoric about the Covid-19 vaccine can leave an entire community vulnerable, said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“Individuals can have their own personal beliefs, but they also have to think about the public when they have a platform as he does,” she said. “Individual decisions can have major societal consequences.”

Though State Farm declined to extend its 12-year partner deal with Mr. Rodgers in 2023, a company spokesman said, “This decision was not based on the personal views of Mr. Rodgers.”

Mr. Rodgers’s skepticism dates back to high school when he studied the life and death of John F. Kennedy, he explained this winter on “Look Into It with Eddie Bravo,” a podcast hosted by a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist. It did not make sense to Mr. Rodgers that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin of the president, and it “got me into questioning things,” he said.

“‘Conspiracy’ is a term which gets slighted,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Conspiracy theories have been right about a lot of things in the last couple of years.”

It’s unclear how many players are sympathetic to Mr. Rodgers’s views. Few players express these kinds of opinions publicly. Those who do often pivot back toward silence.

In 2015, the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady left a MAGA hat in his locker and voiced his support for Donald Trump. When reporters grilled him, Mr. Brady ditched the hat and later deflected questions about Mr. Trump.

Mr. Rodgers has defended himself for taking a different path.

“You stand courageously for what you believe in, or the opposite side of that is either saying nothing or being a coward,” Mr. Rodgers told Mr. Rogan. “I’m going to continue talking about this stuff, because it’s important to me.”

Extraordinary talent

Many fans say that their favorite teams are cursed, but the Jets faithful have a legitimate claim. The team has the dubious distinction of owning the longest playoff drought in major league sports. Their only appearance in the Super Bowl was in 1969, before men walked on the moon.

All of which makes it unsurprising that the Jets, a sports radio laughingstock, were more focused on Mr. Rodgers’s exceptional talents than his politics.

Few N.F.L. players are still in uniform at 40, but except for last season’s injury, Mr. Rodgers has been durable, with more passing yards and touchdowns than any active quarterback.

New York players and fans had upbeat expectations for Mr. Rodgers’s move to the big city, and he initially embraced his new hometown with gusto.

At Knicks and Rangers playoff games last year, he was cheered when he appeared on the jumbotron at Madison Square Garden. He attended the Tony Awards. He went to a Taylor Swift concert at MetLife Stadium.

But his dreams of leading the Jets to a Super Bowl title were at least temporarily derailed last September when he had to be helped off the field.

Experts said returning quickly from an Achilles’ tear was a long shot. Mr. Rodgers told Mr. Rogan he tried to hasten his recovery with hyperbaric chamber therapy, regenerative stem-cell treatments and bone broth slurped to boost collagen.

‘Where the hope starts’

Amid his eight-hour daily rehab sessions, Mr. Rodgers began talking with Mr. Kennedy about his presidential campaign. The candidate’s philosophy, particularly on the Covid vaccine, aligns with his own.

“If there is a way that R.F.K. could get elected, to me, that’s where the hope starts,” Mr. Rodgers told Mr. Rogan this winter.

Less than two months later, Mr. Kennedy named him as a possible vice-presidential partner, jolting Jets fans who feared they had mistakenly placed their hopes on a player who was aging, injured and a would-be politician.

Some of those on the Costa Rican retreat were aware of the news but mostly ignored the distractions, said Jeramy Poyer, the brother of the Miami Dolphins safety Jordan Poyer.

There, Mr. Rodgers and his fellow searchers spent two hours in an airless tepee that was heated to more than 100 degrees to induce feelings of enlightenment.

The last night, according to New York Times interviews with two participants and a podcast appearance by Mr. Rodgers, they gathered in a large room overlooking the natural foliage of the retreat to drink ayahuasca, which is meant to bring on euphoria, hallucinations and a processing of depression and trauma that can lead to long-term peace.

Adrian Colbert, a safety for the Bears, said the ceremonies helped him understand that “emotional healing is looked down upon, especially for men. But vulnerability is power.” He added, “I felt my heart explode, and I felt so much love. I couldn’t help but cry.”

Some people were playing bongos and guitar as the group ventured into the grass and gazed at the stars. I just fell in love with the Yawanawa, the medicine they served,” Mr. Rodgers said on the “I Can Fly” podcast.

Mr. Poyer said that Mr. Rodgers told him it was “one of the best nights of his life.”

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