The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The vaccine issue is simple. Passing judgment on Aaron Rodgers is complicated.

Aaron Rodgers's Packers fell to the 49ers on Saturday. (Aaron Gash/AP)
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As it has done for several years, an international organization fighting human trafficking announced a rollout of its latest campaign Tuesday, timed to the upcoming Super Bowl. The group, called It’s a Penalty, planned a news conference at Los Angeles International Airport. Uber drivers were to be given tags to hang in their back seats with a hotline number. Hotel executives were to pledge the support of their properties.

“We know from previous campaigns just how impactful [sports platforms] can be,” It’s a Penalty CEO Sarah de Carvalho said in a statement.

As such, de Carvalho’s organization conscripts concerned NFL stars in its mission. In a 30-second video on American Airlines and Southwest Airlines flights, passengers hear from Rams punter Johnny Hekker, Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin and Bears quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Nick Foles.

And from the Packers, just as he participated a year ago, quarterback Aaron Rodgers — who is also the league’s best-known and most outspoken anti-vaccine advocate.

From 2018: The careful and often subtle social activism of Aaron Rodgers, NFL’s biggest superstar

Rodgers just last week amplified his vaccination skepticism in an interview with ESPN, panning President Biden’s charge that the pandemic is being driven by the unvaccinated such as Rodgers and suggesting social media sites were in the wrong for censoring those, such as Rodgers, who spew doubts about the science. He even exhaled some reckless suspicion about Biden’s victory.

For the record, yet again: The science from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most recently found that “among 1,228,664 persons who completed primary vaccination during December 2020-October 2021, severe covid-19-associated outcomes (0.015%) or death (0.0033%) were rare.”

In the NFL, as in society, Rodgers is an outlier. The league has said upward of 95 percent of its players are vaccinated. Still, Rodgers appealed to the league that he was allergic to two of the approved vaccines, was uncertain of the efficacy of a third approved shot and had protected himself by taking ivermectin, zinc and monoclonal antibodies treatments. He then tested positive in November and was forced by the NFL’s protocols to miss a game.

For the record, yet again: The CDC does not approve of ivermectin to protect against covid. It hasn’t found zinc to be of any help unless you’re looking to reflect ultraviolet rays at the beach. And it says monoclonal treatments are for those at high risk.

I wondered if Rodgers would appear at the It’s a Penalty event. After all, despite another MVP-worthy season — this time amassing more than 4,100 passing yards with 37 touchdowns and just four interceptions — Rodgers doesn’t have anything pressing to do this week. The three-time MVP was unceremoniously booted from the playoffs Saturday night in a stunning 13-10 loss to San Francisco on his winter wonderland of a home field in Green Bay.

It was a setback that, because of Rodgers’s perplexing stance on vaccination, spurred a stream of self-satisfied schadenfreude on social media.

Everybody had jokes! #ByeAaron was trending. Politico David Axelrod tweeted that, despite being favored, Rodgers and the Packers “WEREN’T immune!!” Robby Kalland, a writer at Uproxx, quipped that Rodgers “should’ve done more of his own research on the 49ers defense.” Former player-turned-TV-motormouth Shannon Sharpe wrote on Twitter that Rodgers “won’t have to worry about being Covid tested next [week] or ppl trying to silence him.” And Robert Reich, the former U.S. secretary of labor, even invoked Colin Kaepernick on his Twitter stage: “Just a reminder: Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to three victories over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.”

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Rodgers, of course, was among the first and one of the most voluble of NFL superstars to support Kaepernick’s protest and condemn the league’s exiling of him.

Indeed, until Rodgers got caught in a lie by misleading the public about whether he was vaccinated (and then turning out to be a vaccine skeptic), he was as conscious about social justice issues — which is exactly what vaccination is — as any athlete out there.

When then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tried to strip his state’s public-sector unions of virtually all collective bargaining rights, one person who came to the defense of the unions was Rodgers, who would also serve as a Packers shop rep to the NFL Players Association. About the same time, Rodgers became involved in the fight against conflict mining, specifically in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where raw materials that make our phones and laptops are sourced under the eye of armed groups that have fought and committed all manner of human-rights abuses over the spoils of that trade. He’s a face of the movement’s Enough Project — and now he’s also fighting human trafficking.

In a small way, it isn’t surprising that Rodgers embraces progressive causes but has come out as anti-vaccine. There’s a corner of the left where suspicion of government and mistrust of corporate America have given rise to refusal of mandates and suspicion that “Big Pharma” is behind it all.

I wish we could be uncomplicated. But I recall marching to compel U.S. institutions and businesses to divest from South Africa only to see legendary poet Nikki Giovanni refuse to join other artists in declining to entertain the brutal apartheid regime and sporting a South African Krugerrand on her watchband.

And, of course, Gandhi, from whom Martin Luther King borrowed so much to help free Black people here, was for much of his life a racist.

What of Rodgers in the end? It’s not over — not yet. His season is but not his career. He will be back next year, in Green Bay or some other locale, where people who this week trolled him with online punchlines will cheer him as a potential savior.

For me, it reminded how convoluted, sometimes disingenuous and frequently preposterous we can be. All of us — including Rodgers and his newfound haters.

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