When Heroes Fall: How the intersection between fandom and public health can change who you root for

Today is the day, we have reached Super Bowl 56 and for those of you who know me well you will know how much I love Super Bowl Sunday. This year its the LA Rams up against the Cincinnati Bengals. We will be a divided household as the Rams are one of my secondary teams and my husband is a lifelong Bengals fan. Now I’ve been a big NFL fan for many years, after my husband introduced me to the game – I describe it as chess with violence. For all of this time I have supported the Green Bay Packers. Unlike in the Premiership because of the divisionary structure you can have secondary teams, such as my liking of the Rams, but the Cheese Heads have always had my heart. One of the reasons for this is because of the ethos of the team, they are owned by the community and include community service in all of their contracts, why oh why therefore would I be secretly quite glad that my team have not made it to the Super Bowl this year?

Who is Aaron Rogers and What Did He Do?

Aaron Rogers is the Quarter Back for the Green Bay Packers, in effect he is the leader of the team. He is currently on a 4 year contract valued at $134 million (remember this number when we talk fines later). In November 2021 it emerged that Aaron Rodgers had COVID-19. These things happen I hear you say, you can get COVID-19 even if vaccinated. All true, what also emerged linked to this however was the Aaron Rodgers had lied/obfuscated about being vaccinated for SARS CoV2. He had also followed NFL guidance for vaccinated players when unvaccinated, leading the Green Bay Packers to also not be compliant with NFL COVID-19 guidance.

The NFL COVID-19 guidance is:

If a vaccinated person tests positive and is asymptomatic, he or she will be isolated and contact tracing will promptly occur. The positive individual will be permitted to return to duty after two negative tests at least 24-hours apart and will thereafter be tested every two weeks or as directed by the medical staffs. Vaccinated individuals will not be subject to quarantine as a result of close contact with an infected person.

If an unvaccinated person tests positive, the protocols from 2020 will remain in effect. The person will be isolated for a period of 10 days and will then be permitted to return to duty if asymptomatic. Unvaccinated individuals will continue to be subject to a five-day quarantine period if they have close contact with an infected individual.

https://operations.nfl.com/updates/football-ops/2021-covid-related-operating-principles/

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s the learning from those mistakes that matters. However when it came out that Aaron Rogers had lied, instead of demonstrating learning he doubled down and used the coverage to talk about his scientific opinions and the research he had done. Again, I support people gathering information. When you gather that information from known discredited sources and use your platform to continue to spread that disinformation however I have an issue. So much so I tweeted about it and how it made me feel as both a scientist and a fan:

So What Did He Say?

Aaron Rogers admitted that he had misled others by avoiding or implying he was vaccinated when he had instead chosen to take a homeopathic approach to COVID-19. He appeared on a Friday night American talk show called The Pat McAfee Show in order to respond to the detail that had been released:

“I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and ability to make choices for your body: Not 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.”

Aaron Rogers – The Pat McAfee Show

Rodgers then went on to say he had received monoclonal antibodies and taken ivermectin for his COVID-19 infection and went on to thank podcast host Joe Rogan – whose podcast has been criticised for spreading SARS CoV2 disinformation.

“I consulted with a now good friend of mine Joe Rogan, after he got Covid, and I’ve been doing a lot of stuff that he recommended,”

Aaron Rogers – The Pat McAfee Show

If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem

A lot of the science quoted by Rogers has been disproven time and time again and it wasn’t just me that was upset that he was spreading mis-information, even when challenged, under the guise of him ‘doing own research’:

When you are acting as a spokes person for information that has been shown to be incorrect then this isn’t a zero sum game. People who look up to you may not have the scientific knowledge or background to unpick what you are saying and challenge that information. Those same people may follow on and take up your advice and so your actions could actively result in harm. I feel this is especially true if you are an athlete and therefore you make money from sponsorship and other activities linked to your physical health, which could be viewed as being based in increased health knowledge/awareness.

It’s a matter of leadership

Quarter backs act as the leaders of their team, Rogers has been in the NFL for a long time and acts as one of it’s senior leaders. Whether you want it or not that position comes with a level of social responsibility. One of the reasons I fell in love with the Packers is that social responsibility is imbedded throughout the culture of the team. It is therefore even more jarring when the leader of such a team goes against that culture. During his interview Rogers even went on to state that his actions were themselves imbedded in his role as a leader:

Rogers claimed he had a “moral obligation to object to unjust rules and rules that make no sense.”

Aaron Rogers – The Pat McAfee Show

My issue with this statement is that if it was true then true leadership would have been standing up and owning your opinions and being open to challenge. He even went on to challenge the NFL and their medical team by saying he had been told that it was impossible to catch COVID-19 if you were vaccinated and it was this untruth that added to his lack of willingness to be vaccinated. The NFL however responded by saying:

“No doctor from the league or the joint NFL-NFLPA infectious disease consultants communicated with the player. If they had, they certainly would have never said anything like that.”

NFL statement on Aaron Rodgers’ claims about a doctor saying COVID-19 can’t be caught, transmitted by vaccinated players.

This interaction makes me question the response that states it was linked to leadership, as leadership to me does not lie well when linked to deceit.

This isn’t all about Rogers to me though. The Packers leadership has also been questionable. From statements made it is clear that they were aware of the way that Aaron was both feeling and behaving. When he came out with comments accusing the NFL or mis-leading scientific commentary the silence was deafening. Both Rogers and the Packers were fined linked to COVID compliance penalties: the Packers $300,000 and Rodgers was fined $14,650. Speaking of leadership however, how does that fine stand up as leadership? It is likely less than a weeks pay for Rogers and a drop in the ocean for the team. Leadership is linked to culture and if that culture allows the behaviour we’ve seen this year then I can’t help but be disappointed.

When you lie its not just you you put at risk, you remove the choice from others

Before the season started, Rodgers was asked if he had been vaccinated and he said he had been “immunized.” In the same answer, he said of unvaccinated players, “I’m not gonna judge those guys,” seeming to imply he had received the jab. Rodgers during his interview insisted he wasn’t lying in that answer, but conceded he didn’t want to answer more questions about vaccination.

“I wanted it to go away,” he admitted. “Everyone on the squad knew I was not vaccinated. Everyone in the organization knew I wasn’t vaccinated. I wasn’t hiding from anybody. I was trying to minimize and mitigate having this conversation going on and on.”

Aaron Rogers – The Pat McAfee Show

Medical information is personal and therefore it is not a matter that the public have the right to ‘know’, to be honest its none of my business as long as you keep it to yourself and don’t use it as a platform. There is a difference however between not getting drawn into a conversation about it and lying/misleading others. If he followed guidance for vaccinated individuals when he was unvaccinated that is deceit, and it is deceit that could have posed a risk to others. It is not the lie that matters as much as the actions that could have affected others. For instance he was filmed attending a party and other events and even on the side lines speaking to journalists where he breached guidelines for unvaccinated players. That means he knowingly put his team mates at risk, as well as risking the performance of the team as a whole if an outbreak had resulted. If the Packers leadership knew that makes it worse, but I remain to be convinced that everyone he exposed was actively consented into that exposure by knowing his status. I doubt he told the cleaners he interacted with, those who served him food in the canteen. Those people may have been at high risk of severe infection or truly unable to be vaccinated and were under the impression their risk was being controlled. When we assume consent we remove choice and that is not acceptable no matter how amazing your throwing arm. When you say you have the right to make a choice for your body that is correct, but not when by doing so you lie and remove that same choice from others.

Should we reward when off pitch behaviour hasn’t kept to the standard we proclaim to hold?

Last weekend Aaron Rogers was awarded the 2022 Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. I must admit to never having been more disappointed. NFL is one of the few sports that claims to care about off pitch conduct and in holding players to account in terms of behaviour. For a player to be awarded MVP in the same season that they were fined for the way they have behaved seems counter intuitive.

To me this whole situation has sent the wrong message. It says that if you are talented enough, rich enough, important enough the rules don’t apply to you. Even if you get caught out you get a minimal slap on the wrist and you will move on with no consequences. Rules are for the many and not for the few, especially public health rules which rely on us all coming together for the good of everyone. If you opt out the consequences are not just yours but ours. This isn’t just an issue for NFL, but for society as a whole. When those who are seen as ‘special’ are allowed to opt out it means that the rest of us are less likely to comply. In a world where compliance has never mattered more leadership is key.

Finally, I want to clear that this post isn’t about cancel culture. I’ve struggled with the way I feel over this. I’ve struggled with the fact that the behaviour of one individual and the lack of censor from the owners of the team has led me to feel less warmly about the other 52 players on that team. The rest of those players for the most part, won’t have the shield that Aaron Rogers is provided because of his talent, most of them will have obeyed the rules and done nothing wrong, even worse some of them will lose their jobs this year as well as the opportunity to get a Super Bowl ring and the opportunities that come with it. I don’t believe the rest of the team should suffer, but I do believe that when leaders in our communities break the rules they should at least learn from the experience. They should not be permitted to use the platform they have to then spread mis-information and pile on the harm and then be rewarded for it at the end of the season because they have talent. To me it gives out all the wrong messages. Leaders have responsibilities, talented people are not immune from the rules of society………be that beating up your girlfriend or putting others at risk of COVID-19. Until we are all held account to the same rules and the same law holds for us all there is no fairness and I for one will no longer count the likes of Aaron Rogers as one of my heroes, I’ll be sticking to the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg instead!

All opinions on this blog post are my own

One thought on “When Heroes Fall: How the intersection between fandom and public health can change who you root for

  1. So well put. I’ve felt let down by events around this in the NFL this year and the MVP award in particular. Not to mention the fiasco in the UK Government’s ruling cabinet. Leaders should if anything try even harder than the average Joe to provide a good example. What a shame that so many do not.

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