Aaron Rodgers and I were talking about The Office, because of course we were. He went viral last week after showing up to training camp in a shirt featuring an NBA Jam–style graphic of Kevin Malone and chili. Everything Rodgers did that week was seen as some sort of hieroglyphics to be deciphered, given his uncertain relationship and future with the Packers. The shirt was, it turns out, the first one he saw in his bedroom when he arrived after a late flight from California. He said he was jet-lagged and had one thought about wearing the shirt: “This is going to be awesome.” And he was glad there were photos. The sunglasses were from his old teammate AJ Hawk. “They’re like a throwback to ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage.”
“Zero thought beyond that,” he said with a laugh about the hubbub. “It was 4 a.m. California time and there was not a lot of brain function going on for me.”
The interview was a sequel to a chat we had in the last training camp media could attend in 2019, when Rodgers detailed his favorite bits of pop culture, especially the recently concluded Game of Thrones. He is among the best interviews in all of sports. We’ve talked in the past about everything from Hail Marys to league changes, but hell, anyone can do that. Very few athletes can talk about The Hateful Eight as well as Rodgers, who by the way won the league MVP last year.
Back in 2019, he was disappointed in the finale of Thrones and was searching for new shows. In the void, he found two he’s loved: After Life, a Ricky Gervais show he’s obsessed with (he called Season 2 “phenomenal”), and Mare of Easttown, because he found Kate Winslet’s acting brilliant. He’s also interested in quirky comedy—everything from Norm MacDonald to Documentary Now!—so I was interested in whether he ever tries to channel that in his press conferences. Is he, in short, ever doing a bit?
The answer is, well, sorta. He’s played a game that he doesn’t tell people about: Last season, a friend of Rodgers had a mission for him. “He said I need to say ‘desert rose’ in an answer. So it was hard. It was really hard,” he explained. As I left the interview, I Googled whether he had succeeded. And yes, it was there, in the Associated Press, The Athletic, and many others: “I think the Zoom meetings in the offseason were definitely my desert rose.” This, obviously, makes no sense. And Rodgers loves this challenge.
“One of my toughest jobs in those situations,” Rodgers told me, “is to try and keep a straight face when I’m delivering a word or phrase that doesn’t seem to match my answer, the context, or even the question anybody’s asked.”
A press conference, he said, “is a performance in some sense, because you are putting on a show for a lot of people watching it, hanging on your answers. It’s not much different in approach than a practice. I like to be prepared.” He explained that Tom Fanning, an assistant director in the Packers communications department, keeps him up to speed on what’s in the news, which he then thinks about—but not too hard. “I never want to predetermine answers and I really don’t say clichés. I like to just kind of speak from the heart, and it’s always served me well.”
There were no clichés, of course, in Rodgers’s opening press conference last week, a blistering and blunt assessment of his future and role in the organization. He announced that he’d considered retirement, openly wondered about his future in the organization, and aired grievances against management’s decision to let a number of veterans leave, among other things. Rodgers did not show up for offseason activities and signed an amended contract that according to multiple reports came with an agreement to review his situation after this year. Since that press conference, things have been mostly quiet in Green Bay; there is no ambiguity now that Rodgers has laid things bare. On the day I was at practice, Rodgers threw a 40-yard dart into a small net, which led to roars from a training camp crowd and Rodgers flexing his biceps in celebration. Second-year quarterback Jordan Love met with the media on Thursday and said his relationship with Rodgers was great. The Packers spent the offseason as the center of the football universe and have spent the past week among pretty much normalcy. Rodgers is once again reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which he calls a “camp tradition.”
Unlike our last talk on Thrones, Rodgers is back in on the franchise and excited about the looming spinoffs. “I was disappointed in the last episode,” he said. “I felt like it was a lot crammed in. And Bran the Builder, in my opinion, should not have been the winner. Just because he never wanted it. He was calling himself the Three-Eyed Raven the whole time. But I am excited about the spinoffs. You know, you never know what the show is going to turn into. Because I mean, 10 years ago, nobody knew who Kit Harington was or Emilia Clarke, really. And now they’re humongous stars, and they should be, because they’re phenomenal actors.”
He mentioned he’s mostly watching the Olympics right now, which brought us to Mike Tirico’s interview with Simone Biles. He praised Tirico, saying far too many athlete interviews are simply the interviewer “focused on what questions they want to ask instead of what the responder is saying back.” Then, he wanted to talk about the broader issue at hand.
“I give Simone so much credit for her ability to speak the truth, her truth, and to answer tough questions, and to have the courage to say, ‘I’m scared’ and ‘I don’t feel like I should be out there,’” Rodgers said. “She’s the greatest gymnast of all time. And mental health [awareness] is an issue that is continuing to break down the stigmas that don’t allow us to talk about it or only allow us to talk about it in a super negative, depressive, suicidal way. People of all ages and all professions are dealing with mental issues, especially during COVID. You’ve seen the suicide hotline [calls] going way up. We’ve seen so many different statistics around mental health.
“It’s something we should be talking about and ways to help people get through it, whether it’s techniques or therapy or just conversations letting people know they’re not alone. And that’s what Simone did. I’m very, very proud of her. I’ve gotten to know her a little bit at times over the years. And I think what she did and then the way she handled herself, cheering for her teammates, was really special to watch in a tough situation for her. And I give her just a tremendous amount of respect.”
What can you do to keep that conversation going?
“Well, we should keep talking about it,” Rodgers told me. “Keep talking about ways that we individually deal with stress and deal with anxiety and deal with pressure and deal with depression or loneliness. I think that would really help. Because we, whether we like it or not, have a platform to influence people. And our words are often listened to more than the person who’s not in the public eye as much. So we have an opportunity—not an obligation, an opportunity—to maybe share some of our own ways of dealing with things and break some of the stigma around mental health.”
I’d asked whether his circumstances over the past few months dictated his watching habits—e.g., when he’s the most-discussed guy in sports, does he want to watch something to distract him? He said that if it’s been a “long day” it usually means he’ll turn on a Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller flick, but generally, he reads books and watches any golf he can find on TV. (We are both golf sickos, and I will spare you excerpts from that particular conversation except to say we both seemed to enjoy the U.S. Senior Women’s Open won by Annika Sorenstam.)
As for Jeopardy!, the show he hosted in April, Rodgers said he tried to not be influenced by other guest hosts, so he didn’t want to watch. This meant he did not see a lot of Ken Jennings, who was the host before him. “I know [Ken] did a nice job. I did see a couple of the other hosts. And you know, I know how the show goes, and how Mike [Richards] does it as the executive producer, and Clay, the director, they put together the episodes and they’re making you look good. So I could tell even from my own time when the line was a pickup and when it was actually in the moment. And that’s the beauty of the show,” he said. “They really do a good job of helping the host and the players out.” (Richards is widely considered to be in negotiations for the hosting job.)
Rodgers’s deadpan humor was on full display during his hosting stint, something he said started with British humor. “I first got into The Office watching the British Office. I’m a huge fan of Ricky Gervais,” Rodgers said. “[In the American version,] Steve really got into the role and Rainn’s personality came out and John’s personality—I just loved the character arcs of all the people in the episodes. You know, Jenna is obviously a phenomenal actress. The connection between Jenna and John on screen is fantastic, and Ryan and Kelly, I just love that everybody kind of had their own stories, even for Creed Bratton, you know, being an extra in a full-time role. Phyllis [in casting] getting a full-time role was pretty cool to see.
“But I think the thing I love about it the most is that show, unfortunately, would get canceled in today’s culture, probably. Because everybody’s always looking to cancel something for some reason. It’s not precious humor, it is a lot like British humor. And British humor is not precious, you know. They talk about topics in jest using comedy to make light of things that maybe people are too offended about. Or maybe topics that [we] need more conversation around. I think that’s what The Office did. It made us look within ourselves and relate to certain characters, and be the best version, maybe, of that character that we see in ourselves. I definitely love that about the show.”
Why would it be “canceled”?
“Everybody wants something to be offended about,” he said. “People have a voice now with social media. There’s a level of misery to people’s lives, and instead of working on themselves and trying to better themselves, it’s almost more fun for them to feel better about themselves by canceling somebody else and tearing down somebody else instead of building more connection and love in this world. I think that’s unfortunately a path that too many people take.”
Rodgers, of course, like his favorite comedy show, has his own office politics these days. He’s just trying to find his desert rose.