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Aaron Rodgers Said He Wanted Clarity. What He Really Wanted Is Control.

Rodgers has frequently complained about the processes in Green Bay and the lack of context in the media. But his own side of the story shows that not all narrators are reliable.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Do you remember when the great saga of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers began? Was it in 2021, when ESPN reported that he had expressed a desire to be traded? Before that, in 2020, when the Packers drafted his replacement-in-waiting, Jordan Love? Or even longer ago, when the team changed the way it runs its front office for the first time in decades?

Rodgers hasn’t been traded away just yet, but it’s a matter of dotted i’s and crossed t’s. The Packers and Jets are negotiating; he’s played his last snap in the green and gold. Rodgers made all of this clear during his appearance on The Pat McAfee Show this week. He made other things clear, too, with the topical pivots and smooth repetition of a political candidate staying on message. Rodgers said he isn’t the victim here, that he isn’t offended by anything, and that all he wants is clear communication and transparency.

But for all Rodgers’s asserting, his gradual, excruciating, public fallout with the Packers tells a different story. A story of a player who is offended, and does feel like a victim—at times, rightfully. A story of a player who preaches transparency but thrives in opacity—at times, of his own devising.

Rodgers has ordained himself the narrator of this story—unsurprisingly so. Narrators control the story, directing focus and capturing attention, underscoring some details and brushing others aside. What Rodgers would have us forget is that for all his pleas for transparency, not all narrators are reliable. Rodgers claims to want clarity. What he really wants is control.

As we look back on the long and messy divorce of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, then, we see two stories. One is the narrative that Rodgers spins for us, the self-proclaimed elucidator, the bringer of facts, Honest Aaron. The second is the narrative beneath, the What Really Happened (as best as we can see it), pieced together from the remnants left behind.

Aaron Rodgers has a problem with Mark Murphy.

If you don’t know who Mark Murphy is, that’s OK. He’s the CEO and team president of the Green Bay Packers. Has been since 2007. I’d wager most fans don’t know who the CEO and/or president of their favorite team is, or even whether one person is both the CEO and president or whether it’s two separate people, and what the responsibilities are of that one person (or two people, as the case may be).

In the case of the Packers, the team president is the spearhead of the football operations. General manager Brian Gutekunst, executive vice president of football operations Russ Ball, and head coach Matt LaFleur all report to Murphy.

Murphy decided on this structure himself. It was his decision to demote longtime general manager Ted Thompson at the end of the 2017 season. Thompson at the time had total control over all football decisions. It had been that way since 1991, when then-president Bob Harlan gave then–general manager Ron Wolf complete autonomy over football decisions. Instead of hiring a new general manager to fill the same shoes, Murphy made himself in charge of all football decisions, with Gutekunst, Ball, and the head coach (then Mike McCarthy, now LaFleur) reporting to him.

The current state of the Packers’ front office matters to Rodgers on a deep, personal level. On Wednesday, when Rodgers joined The Pat McAfee Show—not to announce what his future in football would be, as he emphasized at the top of his appearance, but to instead clarify a decision already made and a process long underway—Rodgers’s first comments were about how the front office had changed since he was drafted.

The current Packers front office “drafted a guy to replace me. Now, maybe not right away, because there was nothing about trading in the immediate … but even farther back than that, you have to realize, I was drafted in 2005 by Ted Thompson. The front office at that time looked a lot different. Front office at that time consisted of Ted Thompson, John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie, John Dorsey, Eliot Wolf, who had been in the front office for a number of years, whose dad [Ron] was obviously an architect of the Packers, awesome guy. … The president of the Packers in 2005 was Bob Harlan”—and here, Rodgers’s face breaks into a big smile. “Bob, legendary guy. I have so much love for him.”

Thompson was not just the general manager who selected Rodgers; he was also the general manager who elected to move on from veteran QB Brett Favre and elevate Rodgers to the starting job in 2008. But in late 2017, when Thompson was demoted and Murphy restructured the front office, the Packers executives who had picked and long supported Rodgers had all been ousted. Schneider, McKenzie, Dorsey, Wolf—they were gone.

That was an inflection point for Rodgers’s relationship with the Packers’ leadership. In April 2018, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported that Rodgers was “‘frustrated’ and ‘emotional’ over a lack of communication from the front office prior to some significant decisions this offseason.” Robinson cited the departure of QB coach Alex Van Pelt and release of wide receiver Jordy Nelson earlier that year, the former of which Rodgers had openly questioned on Golic & Wingo a few months prior.

During the 2018 season, the Packers fired McCarthy. And during the 2019 head-coach hiring cycle, there was Murphy, making the final decision. When he called Rodgers to inform the QB that he was hiring LaFleur, according to Tyler Dunne’s reporting with Bleacher Report, he told Rodgers, “Don’t be the problem. Don’t be the problem.” Another source told Dunne that Murphy was “tired of the diva stuff” from his star quarterback. (This, by the way, was before Rodgers began publicly criticizing the organization for how it handled the release of veteran players; calling for more influence over roster management; and appearing weekly on McAfee’s show to share his opinion on all things. The “diva stuff” had yet to truly begin.)

These were the first sparks, and they grew into fireworks by 2021. That’s when, on the afternoon of the first round of the NFL draft, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Rodgers was so frustrated with the Packers that he had been considering, and had even vocalized, his desire to leave the team.

Aaron Rodgers has a problem with Adam Schefter.

We’ll get to Schefter in a second, but we should actually start here: Aaron Rodgers has a problem with sports media in general.

This is not news. When The Athletic published a story in which ex-Packers receivers talked about the difficulty they had learning all of Rodgers’s secret hand signals for route adjustments this season, Rodgers called it “by far the dumbest nothingburger article that I have read in the entire season … I don’t know if you could ever top the COVID toe Wall Street Journal [story] but this was the dumbest article of the year.”

The Wall Street Journal story in question was written in November 2021, when the paper reported that Rodgers said he had a condition colloquially called COVID toe after Rodgers had said just that on The Pat McAfee Show. “I felt good in just a few days. I didn’t have any lingering effects … other than the COVID toe.” Rodgers, who was joking on McAfee’s show, said The Wall Street Journal was “perpetuating false information,” demanded that the author (who he misidentified) apologize, and called it a “classic case of disinformation” from “what used to be a reputable journalistic institution.”

Only a few weeks prior, after contracting COVID-19 in November and being placed into the protocols for unvaccinated players, Rodgers again took to McAfee’s show to lament the media, whom he believed were misrepresenting his comments on his vaccination status. (Before the 2021 season, when Rodgers was asked whether he was vaccinated, he responded, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.”)

“I realize I’m in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now, so before my final nail gets put in my cancel culture casket, I’d like to set the record straight on so many of the blatant lies that are out there about myself right now,” Rodgers said.

Perhaps most notable about the current state of Rodgers’s relationship with the Packers and the media, he accused the press of creating a story out of nothing in the summer of 2021. Months after Schefter’s reporting during the NFL draft, Rodgers appeared for training camp in July and took to the podium to clear the air. But before he spoke about his frustrations with the Packers’ brass and his future with the team, he remarked that the “media loves to make stories when there’s not enough content to put out there.”

He then confirmed most of what had been reported: that he was upset about how the Packers had treated many old players, Nelson included. That he wanted more say on free agents. That he had considered retirement as well as finishing his career with a different team. Rodgers was upset with the media because, in his words, they made a story out of nothing. In reality, he was upset that he didn’t get to tell the story on his own terms.

This podium session established a now familiar pattern. The media reports something about Rodgers, and he takes umbrage with how it has been reported, even if the facts of the reporting are largely correct. The rapid constructing and subsequent dismembering of a spooky media strawman is not new to Rodgers’s game.

This is a matter not of content, but of context. When someone reports on Rodgers, they get to cast him in whatever light they like. I’m doing exactly that right now. I’ve presented him as a politician—calculated and a bit disingenuous. Rodgers would not like this characterization. But when he gets behind a microphone, he doesn’t attack the characterization. That would be too direct, too obvious. He attacks the facts of the reporting, even when the facts are sound and that attack is baseless. And during the attack, the characterization dies from collateral damage.

Consider the news of the past few days. Dianna Russini reported on ESPN on Tuesday that Rodgers has a wish list of players for the Jets to acquire. This list featured some of Rodgers’s former teammates in Green Bay, including free agent WR Allen Lazard, whom the Jets signed later that day to a four-year deal.

Rodgers lambasted this reporting during his appearance on McAfee’s show: “I’ll speak for myself. I’m sure there’ll be people who have their sources. From what I’ve seen, it’s like I had a sheet of paper when I met with the Jets and I said, ‘Sign these people.’ That’s not the reality. That’s so ridiculous. It’s so stupid to think I would do that.”

Of course, that isn’t what Russini reported. She reported that “I was told that there were some other players that Rodgers has on a list that he’d like the New York Jets to look into. Not sure if that means it has to be definite in order for him to agree and say, ‘Yes, this is the trade that I want.’ But the New York Jets are doing the work to take a look at the landscape of these free agents and making sure that they line up with what Aaron Rodgers would like.”

On McAfee, Rodgers said that he’d had a conversation with the Jets about a bunch of different players—he also acknowledged that he spoke glowingly of players that were on Russini’s list, including Lazard and Lewis and Beckham. Rodgers vehemently denied only that he demanded the Jets sign these players or he wouldn’t come to them via trade—yet that detail was never something Russini reported.

The silly and maddening part of this routine is that Rodgers himself understands how this type of story can easily get distorted. Speaking about Russini’s reporting, he said: “When something gets out there, and then assumed to be true, then it can take on a life of its own. It can go from, ‘Oh, there’s a conversation about 20 different players,’ to, ‘Oh, he wants these guys to be signed, otherwise he doesn’t want to come.’”

The hulking monstrosity that is sports media bears some blame here. The kaleidoscope of aggregation presents the original reporting as a fragmented picture. While Russini never said that Rodgers demanded that those players be acquired, some people certainly (and understandably) interpreted it that way. In the marathon game of telephone featuring rumor mills and sources and reporters and aggregators, truths become near truths, and it’s in that gray area that Rodgers does his work. It’s why he took out his own recorder to preserve the interview he gave ESPN the Magazine in 2017—so he wouldn’t be taken “out of context.” When asked in that interview why he’d decided to open up about the drama of the time—his relationship with his family, his love life, impressions he’s left on his teammates—Rodgers said, “Just to be understood a little bit more.” After spending so long as the object of examination and commentary, a specimen on a microscope slide, Rodgers wanted to become the clarion voice on all things … well, on all things Rodgers.

But when Rodgers is given the opportunity to actually get his account on the record and set facts straight, he usually eschews it. As Rodgers cheerfully told McAfee: “Ask Schefter what I texted him, when he somehow got my number and texted me. I didn’t respond to Dianna Russini—I think her name is—but I would say the same thing I told Schefty: Lose my number. Nice try.”

In some ways, this is a defensible approach. Rodgers is in no way beholden to Schefter, Russini, or any other prominent NFL insider at a major television network. He can choose with whom he shares his information, and has done exactly that. He shares it with McAfee and ex-teammate A.J. Hawk, and The Pat McAfee Show benefits greatly from the massive audience that Rodgers’s gravity affords them, both on a weekly basis and in these critical one-off moments. The viewership for Wednesday’s episode hit nearly 500,000 at its peak.

But while Rodgers sits on the segment curated for him, speaking to the media members whom he has hand-selected, his self-purported goal—to stop the misinformation and share the truth—is not achieved. He’s creating the same type of distortion he’s so frequently frustrated with.

Rodgers mentioned time and again on McAfee’s show how he wished the Packers were clear with him about their expectations this offseason. He said that before his darkness retreat, they had told him they’d welcome him back next season with open arms—but when he finished his retreat, their tone had changed, and people whom he trusts had told him they were shopping him around the league. He said that, entering the retreat, he was 90 percent sure he’d retire; upon exiting, he said, he was more interested in playing again, and in hearing what the Packers had to say.

But later on in the same interview, he told McAfee and Hawk that he never thought the Packers really wanted him back, that he had a feeling all season long that they were lukewarm on his returning. He said that he wouldn’t have been gung ho about playing for the Packers, even if they had offered for him to play again. This visibly confused McAfee and Hawk, and never got fully resolved.

There are contradictions in Rodgers’s own narrative. Introduce the Packers’ side of things, and it gets even harder to find true north. In Indianapolis during the NFL combine, Gutekunst said that he hadn’t had any in-person conversations with Rodgers; that all options were on the table; that, until Rodgers told the Packers whether he still wanted to play (in Green Bay or elsewhere), the Packers wouldn’t make any moves.

If Rodgers wanted the Packers to have total clarity about his intentions and motivations, he could provide that—but he doesn’t. If he wanted the media to have total clarity about his intentions and motivations, he could provide that—but he doesn’t. As such, the characterization that Rodgers constructs for himself—a straight shooter who wants out from all this rumormongering and misrepresentation—is revealed to be just that: a character. Rodgers does not hate rumor, speculation, interpretation. He seems to enjoy it, inciting the very confusion that raises his hackles. He seems to foster it, and the attention that he gains benefits not just him, but also his friends.

This returns us to the football side of things. Rodgers beseeched the Packers for influence over the roster around him. Now that he has some of that influence—not over the Packers’ roster, but over the Jets’—we can see who Rodgers wants. Not just Randall Cobb, whom Gutekunst confirmed he acquired in Green Bay to try to keep Rodgers happy, but Lazard and Marcedes Lewis. These are Rodgers’s friends—players he’s played with for a long time—and he’s trying to persuade the Jets to secure them with free agent contracts.

In some ways, Rodgers’s approach is understandable. It’s familiar, human. I think about all the great people I’ve worked with in my career—quality friends who are capable and talented—and I can empathize with Rodgers’s instinct for brazen patronage. But that’s what it is—brazen patronage—and Rodgers tries to conceal it.

When you strip away the rhetoric and the barbs, much of Rodgers’s drama is, again, human. He likes being the center of attention, but doesn’t want to be seen as someone who likes being the center of attention. He thinks that if he just had some more say, he could fix some of the problems he sees around him, and everyone would be happier. Rodgers has many opinions—ones that he’s described about medical science and media coverage—that I don’t share at all. But I certainly share the insecurity, the frustration, the love for his community, and the need to be more clever than everyone else. It’s all familiar. It’s all human.

They may be familiar human issues, but that does not mean they should be romanticized. There are other human things that Rodgers has had many opportunities to do. Acknowledge when he’s wrong and apologize. Learn about things he doesn’t understand. Let other people do their job. Trust that they’ll do them to the best of their abilities.

Instead of doing these, Rodgers tries to identify and magnify every last failure in Packers leadership and NFL media. Rodgers blames Mark Murphy for not being Ted Thompson, blames Father Time for taking the prime of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb away from him, and, above all else, blames the media for the otherwise incomprehensible fact that nobody can see how singularly persecuted he is. Rodgers spoils for a fight so relentlessly that he often ends up conjuring his own demons to battle, the noble warrior of the tragic narrative he authored himself.

Murphy once shared an analysis of Rodgers that he often heard many times from Thompson—whom Rodgers loved. He said that Thompson called Rodgers “a complicated fella.” Out of Murphy’s mouth, it feels a little pejorative. But in this moment, it encapsulates where we’ve landed nicely. This is a complicated man and a complicated situation. Thank goodness it’s finally reaching its conclusion.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Packers fired Mike McCarthy after the 2018 season; Green Bay fired him during the season.