Over the weekend, an unidentified NFL executive complained to ESPN about the special treatment Aaron Rodgers got from the league.
As everyone on Earth within pinging distance of a cell tower now knows, the Green Bay Packers quarterback isn’t vaccinated. During the preseason, unvaccinated players were supposed to wear masks on the sidelines. Rodgers didn’t do that.
“Our players wore masks all the time,” this frustrated resident of some alternate NFL universe told the network. “We made our guys that weren’t playing wear masks.”
Let me guess. Your guys who wore masks weren’t three-time MVPs? They didn’t spend all of last summer daring you to trade them? Am I getting close?
On the surface, the Rodgers scandal (I hesitate to use that word because scandals usually entail consequences, and there will be none that matter here) is about fairness.
It’s about one guy deciding he doesn’t have to do what everyone else must in order to keep their jobs.
What it’s actually about is power – who has it, who doesn’t and how it is exercised. It’s about how you currently define the word “star” in the athletic context.
Rodgers just proved he has as much or more power as anyone in the NFL. If the Packers run the table and Rodgers goes 50-for-50 in the Super Bowl, he could not have better demonstrated how much.
On Friday, Rodgers gave a rambling, rhetorically delightful defence of his decision to fight the coronavirus with green tea and herbs he grew in his kitchen garden. He talked about “witch hunts,” being a “critical thinker,” and “believing strongly in bodily autonomy.” He cited Martin Luther King as an inspiration for his anti-vaccine stand.
“Health is not a one-size-fits-all for everybody,” Rodgers said.
Is it not? That’s great news. I look forward to my coming boutique flu shot, packaged in my colours, delivered at a time and place of my choosing, by this medic I’ve heard about who gives the sweetest needles.
What Rodgers actually means is that health is not a one-size-fits-all for him. Because he is an enormous sports celebrity and it’s not hard to find a hundred football fanboys with MDs who will say or do anything to please him.
The rest of us take our specialized health services as best we can find them, knowing that if we miss the appointment in February, there’ll be another one coming right up in September. If we die in between, then at least we saved on the no-show fee.
Rodgers isn’t complaining about incipient fascism in pro sports. He isn’t really complaining at all. What’s he got to complain about? He got his way, and will continue to do so.
What he’s trying to do is explain himself. The disconnect arises because he lives in a world in which he gets to do everything he wants, and the rest of us live in a different world.
He lives in the world of the longstanding sports icon still in his prime. In terms of social influence, that’s one tier below tech billionaire and one above President of the United States.
The old way of defining a star was through the quality of their play. If you were better at your job than all of your colleagues, had been so for years, and won things as well, you were a star. By that measure, a league could tolerate five or six stars at a time, total.
But the rise of participation culture created a world in which everyone was a star.
Have one great year? That makes you a star. How about a great month? Definitely a star. How about one great catch in one big game? That’s also star material.
How many guys on the cursed Toronto Maple Leafs have been referred to by someone as a star in the past calendar year? Five? Ten? The word long ago lost whatever oomph it had whenever it first came into common parlance. An adapted definition was required.
Nowadays, a star is not his statistics or his trophies. He needn’t even necessarily be what he plays.
Instead, a star is what he can get away with. It’s how much boneheaded stuff he can say or do and continue on in his career unimpeded.
Jon Gruden thought he was a star because people kept offering him a ton of money to do a variety of jobs badly. Then a couple of his unfiltered thoughts found their way into the newspapers and the NFL coach discovered how expendable he was.
Odell Beckham Jr. thought he was a star in Cleveland with the Browns because lots of people told him so. Then he had someone release a video showing all the times the ball wasn’t thrown to him, and the next thing that got released was Beckham.
Rodgers just bit his thumb at the league, teammates, fans and the generally agreed-upon direction of the American state. The result? A lot of hand waving, a little name calling and nothing else.
It’s fun to make fun, but the fact that this has been reduced so quickly to comedy shows you how little scandal can dent an honest-to-God sports star. If the effort at a takedown isn’t immediately effective, people stop trying for fear of looking foolish.
Had these same events played out in the same way with a player who wasn’t a star, none of this would have happened in the first place. That imaginary Aaron Rodgers, a hack at quarterback or a linebacker, would have been cut in camp.
That makes Rodgers the winner in all this. Shrugging off the outrage of half the American population has allowed him to reassert himself as one of the NFL’s very few apex predators (vegan division). The other half now think of him as a folk hero.
The combo of reputational resilience and off-field adulation may even make him bigger than he was before.
That’s what a star is in 2021. Not someone who is uniquely good at their job. But someone who is so untouchable, they can’t be taken down.