Psychedelics, darkness retreats and ‘Pat McAfee Show’: How Aaron Rodgers became a divisive figure – while barely playing

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 19: Aaron Rodgers #8 of the New York Jets warms up before the preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at MetLife Stadium on August 19, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

Aaron Rodgers warms up before the New York Jets’ preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It wasn’t so long ago that Aaron Rodgers was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

True, his views on vaccines were troubling, not least because he purposefully misled reporters when asked about his vaccination status, while his love of darkness retreats and psychedelics – viewed as wacky by some – provided evidence of an athlete willing to explore and debate alternative ways of living his life.

But his recent shot at Jimmy Kimmel begged the question of how he’d become “the kooky, cringey relative at family holidays,” according to USA Today columnist Nancy Armour.

One-man headline maker

Rodgers has had quite the year.

Away from the football field for almost the current NFL season due to injury, the quarterback has managed to stay in the limelight thanks to his weekly appearances on ESPN’s “The Pat McAfee Show,” providing Rodgers with a regular platform to address many and any issues on his mind. McAfee has confessed he pays Rodgers seven figures to appear on his program.

But what happened with Kimmel – part of a long running verbal feud, falsely suggesting, or perhaps joking – that the late-night host’s name might be among those listed in documents that identify Jeffrey Epstein’s associates, was a reminder that the 40-year-old quarterback’s schtick can be dangerous. Kimmel doesn’t appear in the Epstein documents.

FLORHAM PARK, NEW JERSEY - APRIL 26: (L-R) New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas, team president Hymie Elhai, team owner Christopher Johnson, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, team owner Woody Johnson, and head coach Robert Saleh pose during an introductory press conference at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on April 26, 2023 in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Rodgers poses with Jets general manager Joe Douglas, team president Hymie Elhai, team owner Christopher Johnson, team owner Woody Johnson and head coach Robert Saleh during his introductory press conference.

Over the last 12 months, Rodgers has been a one-man headline maker.

From the initial rumors of his move to New York to the quarterback’s season-ending press conference in which he said the Jets organization needs to “flush the bullsh*t” to bring success, ESPN’s Rich Cimini, who has covered the franchise for over 35 years, has had a front row seat to the Rodgers show.

Cimini doesn’t dispute that Rodgers can be a “polarizing” figure away from the field, but the reporter says that the 40-year-old has actually been a unifying one in the Jets locker room.

“I do not believe at all that he’s divisive in the Jets locker room and within their own building. Just the opposite,” Cimini told CNN Sport. “I actually think he’s been a galvanizing force for the Jets.

“The Jets have been devoid of leadership for years, for decades, and to bring a guy like him into the locker room, I think has had a positive effect,” added Cimini.

The Jets last appeared in the playoffs in the 2010 season and have won just one Super Bowl, 56 years ago, so Rodgers was seen as the crowning piece to a Super Bowl-ready roster. But following his injury, the team struggled and rotated through five quarterbacks throughout the season.

From psychedelics and darkness retreats to galvanizing force

While his Hall of Fame performances on the field – Rodgers won the Super Bowl with Packers as well as four NFL MVP awards – always caught the eye, the Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to some of the veteran’s more controversial opinions.

Rodgers would repeatedly dodge questions from reporters about whether or not he had taken the Covid-19 vaccine, instead saying he was “immunized” against the virus.

A few months later, he missed an NFL game due to Covid-19 protocols and confirmed he was unvaccinated.

Speaking later, Rodgers said that the reason he refused the vaccine is due to an allergy to one of the ingredients they are comprised of.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL's Super Bowl XLV football game in Arlington, Texas, February 6, 2011. Rodgers was voted MVP of the game.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES  - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Rodgers holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas, on February 6, 2011.

He said he is “not an anti-vax flat earther,” but that he’s a “critical thinker,” as well as saying that he “never wanted to be a divisive, polarizing figure … ’Hey, it’s everybody’s own decision with their body.’”

Rodgers also said that the media was on a “witch hunt” to find out which players were vaccinated and blamed reporters for him saying he was “immunized.”

Rodgers also has routinely attacked former chief medical advisor to the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci, throughout the pandemic, saying earlier in January he was “one of the biggest spreaders of misinformation during COVID times.”

And, without evidence, Rodgers has criticized the Covid-19 vaccinations despite the recommendations by major health organizations including the FDA and the CDC that they are safe and effective. “The Vax was not safe and effective like we were told it was, in the beginning,” said Rodgers.

In February 2023, Rodgers said he underwent a four-day darkness retreat as a way, he explained, to “get in a better headspace and have a greater peace in my life” when trying to decide on his future in the NFL. He said he spent four days and four nights in total darkness during the retreat.

Eventually choosing to sign for the Jets in April, shortly afterwards Rodgers then credited psychedelics, such as ayahuasca, a drink made from plants found in the Amazon, for improving his performance on the football field.

“Ayahuasca – 48 touchdowns, five interceptions, MVP. What are you gonna say?” Rodgers had previously said in 2020.

While on the field he’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory, some of Rodgers’ behavior away from the sport shows a different side to the man.

Cimini admits that initially he’d harbored doubts over Rodgers’ buy-in to the Jets on his arrival to the East Coast due to his outside interests, but according to the ESPN journalist, the 40-year-old quarterback delivered a “masterclass in how to have a fan base embrace an athlete.”

Rodgers took a massive pay cut to help the Jets with their salary cap this season. And from being an ever-present fixture during the franchise’s offseason training camp – featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” to being seen around town with his teammates, Rodgers was quickly becoming a fan favorite.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 10: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers looks to throw a pass against the Carolina Panthers during the first quarter in the game at Lambeau Field on November 10, 2019 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Rodgers looks to throw a pass during the Packers’ game against the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field on November 10, 2019.

Cimini remembers the “electric” atmosphere in MetLife Stadium when Rodgers was introduced ahead of the team’s opening game of the season against the Buffalo Bills on September 11, 2023.

The lights in the stadium had been turned out, with only a spotlight following Rodgers’ journey out of the tunnel. As Rodgers ran onto the field, carrying an American flag and with AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ booming out, Jets fans went wild.

“I’ve covered the Jets for more than three decades. I have never seen a moment like that where he ran out of the tunnel and the place felt like a Super Bowl. It really did,” Cimini remembers.

However, 20 minutes later Rodgers was being carried away with a season-ending torn Achilles. “Typical Jet luck,” says Cimini.

‘It is fueled by his ego’

A torn Achilles tendon is thought to be an immediate season-ender, but Rodgers had other ideas, making it clear that he wanted to return this season.

He also didn’t shy away from his self-created media spotlight, continuing to appear on his weekly spot on the “The Pat McAfee Show.”

And while he previously engaged in lighthearted humor with McAfee and his co-hosts during his weekly appearances, Rodgers has tended to slip into more contentious lines of rhetoric during his time away with injury.

His back-and-forth with Kimmel has highlighted that, with his allegations bordering into dangerous territory.

“Either he actually believes my name was going to be on Epstein’s list – which is insane – or the more likely scenario is he doesn’t actually believe that and he just said it because he’s mad at me for making fun of his top knot and his lies about being vaccinated,” Kimmel said of Rodgers, on his late night talk show.

Rodgers would later acknowledge that pedophilia is a serious allegation.

“So, for him (Kimmel) to be upset about that, I get it,” Rodgers said. “I’m not stupid enough … to accuse you of that with absolutely zero evidence, concrete evidence.”

But ESPN had enough and removed Rodgers from the show due to his recent behavior, a person familiar with the matter told CNN. Rodgers appeared on the show the day after it was announced he had been removed.

Rodgers’ frequent media outpourings have also raised questions as to whether that was really helping the Jets and if the organization was doing anything to rein him in.

CNN has reached out to the Jets to ask how the organization manages his media appearances and whether the franchise has been affected by his comments towards Kimmel.

CNN has also reached out to Rodgers’ representatives to offer an opportunity to comment.

Cimini hypothesizes that Rodgers chose to remain in the spotlight in a calculated attempt to take the attention off his teammates and allow them to flourish on the field, but also because that decision was “fueled by his ego.”

“Like with all great athletes … There’s a competitive arrogance that he has that I think guys like Michael Jordan have and Tom Brady,” said Cimini.

“Some might argue that, in a sense, he might have been a distraction. Basically, the most popular player on the team was 3,000 miles away talking on Pat McAfee’s show every week about his rehab from Achilles surgery.”

While Rodgers’ willingness to speak openly has often been viewed as refreshing, his shift towards conspiracy theories and talk of ‘censorship’ has led to much criticism.

“He isn’t in danger of jeopardizing his inevitable entrance into the Hall of Fame, but the more he digs into these conspiracies and attempts to moonlight as an infectious-disease expert, the more his moves will overshadow his brilliant career,” sports journalist Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic.

Rodgers’ arrival in New York during the offseason had looked like a masterstroke, on and off the field for the Jets franchise.

But after missing out on nearly the whole season through injury, Rodgers’ season-ending media conference last week ended with him stressing winning.

“A lot of the bullsh*t –and when I say bullsh*t, I mean just outside distractions – were caused by him,” said Cimini.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 11: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #8 of the New York Jets is helped off the field by team trainers after an injury during the first quarter of the NFL game against the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Rodgers is helped off the field by team trainers after suffering the Achilles injury during the first quarter of the Jets’ game against the Buffalo Bills.

The Jets have found themselves in a “very unique dynamic” with Rodgers, according to Cimini, one which many old school head coaches wouldn’t have stood for.

“Now having covered other coaches, like I know if Bill Parcells were the coach, like an old school type coach or Bill Belichick, they would have been extremely upset by the way that he handled himself this year because he essentially made himself this story even though he wasn’t playing,” Cimini explained.

“Now the Jets, look what could they do? They didn’t want to piss him off by criticizing him, so they basically supported him every step of the way.”

With Rodgers brought in to be the team’s savior and the organization seemingly bending over backwards to accommodate his every need, 2024 should be another interesting year for the Jets.

The quarterback will turn 41 in December. If the Jets don’t transform into a winning team with their star player hopefully back to fitness, one question might be whether Rodgers will still have a platform to continue to express his increasingly controversial opinions.

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