Sports

In Aaron Rodgers’s Return, Packers’ Championship Priorities Are Clear

GREEN BAY, Wis. — As he himself told the Pat McAfee Show last week, Aaron Rodgers is an athlete, not an activist. So after completing the mandatory 10-day isolation period that accompanied his contracting the coronavirus, Rodgers rejoined the Green Bay Packers and resumed doing what he does well, or best: playing football.

On Sunday, the Packers won, which they did not do last week when Rodgers was quarantining, in a 17-0 slog over the Seattle Seahawks. He threw some good passes — one of his best, a deep shot to receiver Allen Lazard, was dropped — and some not-so-good passes. He tossed a horrific interception in the end zone. He did not lead a touchdown drive until 11 minutes remained in the game.

That is an objective description of Rodgers’s football performance, based on empirical evidence, and perhaps the opposite of how he perceived the reception of his first interview on McAfee’s show, on Nov. 5, two days after he tested positive, when he decried the “woke mob” eager to bury him in a “cancel-culture casket.”

He was referring to his decision to not get vaccinated — a decision that, to his dismay, became public, and that shoved the Packers (8-2), vying for the No. 1 seed in a rugged N.F.C., toward defeat last week at Kansas City in his absence.

In that interview, he spouted some baseless claims and circulated misinformation, suggesting that Covid-19 vaccines and treatment were not effective and expressing unfounded concern that vaccines might prompt fertility issues.

That Rodgers elected to use his platform as one of the league’s most visible and accomplished players to gush about junk science enraged public-health professionals and cost him his partnership with Prevea Health, a health care organization in Wisconsin. It did not seem to bother the fans who packed Lambeau Field on an archetypical N.F.L. evening at one of football’s cathedrals — cold and snowy — and welcomed Rodgers into their warm embrace.

They cheered him when he ran out of the tunnel 50 minutes before kickoff and they cheered him when he closed out Seattle with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and they cheered him when he left the field with his friend, linebacker Preston Smith. The ovations, Rodgers said, made him a little “misty.”

“I just don’t take these things for granted, walking off the field as a winner,” Rodgers said, adding, “Hearing that type of response from the crowd was just a little extra special.”

As with other unvaccinated N.F.L. players who test positive, Rodgers was required to isolate, then be cleared for return by a team doctor, in consultation with an independent expert. He said he felt fine, if a little tired, and did not seem interested in rehashing the firestorm that had enveloped the league over the previous 10 days.

“Everybody has an opinion, I understand it,” Rodgers said. “It’s a very polarizing issue for some individuals. But I’m just focusing on the support that I got and it was deep and wide and greatly, greatly appreciated.”

Rodgers conducted his postgame availability over video conference, though when asked why he opted to be interviewed at a remove, instead of in a room with reporters as he had done all season, he did not answer. For Rodgers, who tends to choose his words carefully, his silence seemed a not-so-subtle admission that he did not want to abide by the mask-wearing protocol required when unvaccinated players speak in person with reporters.

When asked directly in late August whether he was vaccinated against Covid-19, he first said, “yeah” — insinuating that he had been — before stating that he was “immunized.” It was a clever bit of misdirection, and it allowed him to escape the criticism that other quarterbacks, like the Colts’ Carson Wentz and the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, have absorbed. In an interview last week with McAfee, Rodgers acknowledged that his response had been disingenuous.

The Packers, though, knew all along that Rodgers was not vaccinated, and their permitting him to amble around their headquarters and conduct news conferences unmasked — a clear violation of the league’s Covid-19 protocols — reinforced an N.F.L. axiom: The better the player, the more an organization is willing to endure.

Rodgers’s talent conferred upon him certain privileges that lesser players, vaccinated or not, probably would not have enjoyed. The choice to enable Rodgers (and Lazard, who is also unvaccinated) cost the Packers a $300,000 fine for failing to enforce those protocols at football facilities or at a team Halloween party that Rodgers attended, unmasked. Both players were fined $14,650 last week.

Though protecting Rodgers was clearly in their best interest, the Packers’ benevolence could be perceived as a conscious move to avoid harshing his mellow after an inferno of an off-season. He and management seem synchronized, for now; Rodgers before the trade deadline lauded both his communication with General Manager Brian Gutekunst and the personnel moves that have shepherded Green Bay, with Arizona losing to Carolina on Sunday, atop the N.F.C.

Rodgers, through concessions the Packers agreed to with his contract, has the power to choose where he plays next season, and it likely won’t be in Green Bay. Four regular-season home games remain before the playoffs, each ushering Rodgers closer to a potential break after 17 seasons in green and gold. He walked off the field with gratitude Sunday. It is, always, easier to remember the good times.

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