ESPN paid $85m to air Aaron Rodgers’ conspiracy theories

Just as when he drops back to pass, Aaron Rodgers scans the world around him and sees enemies everywhere. Over the past four years, The Pat McAfee Show, a streaming sensation that’s recently found a home on ESPN, has provided a forum for the New York Jets quarterback to settle scores and single out other targets for offense – not least his grudge against Jimmy Kimmel.

Rodgers’s three-year-old feud with Kimmel – which began with the talkshow host slamming Rodgers, a stubborn vaccine skeptic, after he tested positive for Covid – reached a troubling inflection point last week when Rodgers appeared on McAfee’s show and implied the comedian was “nervous” about being linked to Jeffrey Epstein. The quarterback pledged to “pop a bottle of something” if Kimmel’s name surfaced in the recent release of documents related to the disgraced financier.

That led to Kimmel hopping on X to reject any connection to Epstein (Kimmel was not named in any documents related to Epstein) and threaten Rodgers with a lawsuit. He then hammered Rodgers on his late-night chatshow in a seven-minute monologue that painted Rodgers as a special case of dumb jock. “Aaron got two As on his report card, and they were both in the word ‘Aaron,’” Kimmel snarked.

On Tuesday, Rodgers appeared on McAfee’s show and unloaded both barrels. He shrugged off the Kimmel broadside (“I think it’s impressive that a man who went to Arizona State and has 10 joke writers can read off a prompter”) and claimed he was misunderstood (“I’m not calling him [a pedophile]”). Things quickly spiraled from there.

Rodgers circled back to old grievances. He picked up his rants against mask requirements, federal vaccine mandates and the “pharmaceutical-industrial complex” – a helluva phrase for sports TV. He touted alternative treatments for Covid, questioned the safety of vaccines, maligned the US’s pandemic response czar Anthony Fauci as “one of the biggest spreaders of misinformation” (ignoring his own efforts) and recommended viewers read a takedown tome on the doctor by Robert F Kennedy Jr, a noted conspiracy theorist. Throughout, Rodgers humble-bragged about his appetite for reading as if he was the first person to discover books and raged against the small-minded who’d sooner take medical advice from professionals than sip ayahuasca on “darkness” retreats. All the while, none of Rodgers’s takes – which ranged from bizarre to dangerous – seemed to connect with many of McAfee’s viewers. “This guy is fucking exhausting with his BS,” one X user huffed.

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Still, Rodgers kept going. He dismissed sportswriters as beneath him, derided as clickbait farm and took swipes at ESPN executive Mike Foss, who last week called Rodgers’s Epstein crack at Kimmel a “dumb and factually inaccurate joke.”

“I don’t even know who that is,” Rodgers said of Foss on Tuesday. “I don’t work for you, Mike!”

That ESPN would allow one of the NFL’s most prominent faces to go full QAnon for the better part of a half hour – peppering the daytime schedule with f-bombs that the censor in charge of the bleeper missed – would seem a marked departure for a network that once harshly punished employees for not sticking to sports at all times. But the Pat McAfee Show is unlike any other ESPN production, with relaxed dress code and language standards. “The opinions expressed on this show do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of their peers, their boss, or ESPN,” goes the show disclaimer, a new wrinkle for ESPN. “There may be some ‘cuss’ words because that’s how humans in the real world talk … PS: Don’t sue us.”

McAfee is a livewire former NFL punter who played alongside Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and is widely admired for his lack of filter. His deadpan sidekick, former linebacker AJ Hawk, won a Super Bowl with Rodgers in Green Bay. Neither the show’s jock stars nor its Greek chorus of fanboy sycophants are especially inclined to push back on much, if anything, their guests say. After Rodgers’s first wind, McAfee made a great show of closing out the controversies and moving on to football matters, only to bring up Fauci unprompted during a discussion on the Steelers’ playoff chances, prompting Rodgers to spout off all over again. None of this was new: Rodgers has repeatedly attacked Fauci on McAfee’s show in the past. So it was no surprise that when Jets beat reporters asked him during Monday’s exit interview what the team needed to avoid another sub-.500 finish next season, many fans rolled their eyes when Rodgers said “flush the bullshit” and eliminate “anything in this building that we’re doing individually or collectively that has nothing to do with real winning.”

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Rodgers’s appearances with McAfee in particular played a large part in establishing the show’s credibility, especially during the quarterback’s back-to-back MVP seasons in 2020 and 2021. He helped extend the show’s reach to ESPN, which acquired the program last May in a five-year licensing deal worth $85m in the hope of tapping into McAfee’s younger, bro-skewing audience. When McAfee gave up his $2.5m a year football salary in 2017 to launch a media career with Barstool Sports, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon believed the punter was making a grave mistake. “Somebody needs to stage an intervention [for McAfee],” the PTI host said. “People who know this guy, get to him now.” Seven years later McAfee hasn’t just become a mainstay at the Worldwide Leader (moonlighting on First Take and College GameDay when he isn’t hosting his own show), he has eclipsed Wilbon’s influence at the network and, perhaps, top dog Stephen A Smith as well.

To wit: last week McAfee got away with calling Norby Williamson, one of ESPN’s most powerful senior executives, a “rat” and “old hag” who was actively “trying to sabotage us” to a combined live TV and streaming audience of close to one million viewers. (In addition, The McAfee Show has almost 2.5 million subscribers on YouTube alone.) “No one is more committed to and invested in ESPN’s success than Norby Williamson,” the network said in a statement. “At the same time, we are thrilled with the multi-platform success that we have seen from The Pat McAfee Show across ESPN.”

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Last October, McAfee admitted to paying Rodgers “over $1m” for his appearances on his show. In exchange the quarterback gets a safe space on air to rival the home field advantage he once enjoyed at Lambeau Field, and because he’s merely a guest on The McAfee Show, ESPN have no control over him. Bryan Curtis, the media critic at The Ringer, summed up the train wreck thusly: “Nobody involved in this story works for anybody, apparently. So no one at ESPN can step in and say, ‘Please stop.’”

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It’s telling that ESPN brass didn’t publicly object to anything Rodgers has said – and he had been airing unfounded Covid chatter for months on McAfee’s show – until the quarterback used their network to launch sneak attacks at Kimmel and his ABC show, even as the networks in play here are both Disney-owned. ESPN is now faced with a dilemma: let McAfee continue to give Rodgers a platform for his diatribes in the future, or cut ties with the show and confirm the quarterback – and much of America’s view – that shadowy forces are out to silence the “real truth tellers”.

It wasn’t so long ago that Rodgers was one of the league’s sharper personalities, a grounded superstar who could just as easily talk shop as hold forth on his Black peers’ right to protest in between shifts as a guest host on Jeopardy! and his public romances with Danica Patrick and Shailene Woodley. But the more he prattles on with McAfee, the more he reveals himself as a thin-skinned egomaniacal contrarian who delights in starting fires and spreading misinformation. The disturbing truth is that many viewers will agree with Rodgers and pick up his “research” on Covid and Fauci. At best McAfee didn’t challenge Rodgers. At worst he kept running with the quarterback’s most dangerous handoff yet. On Wednesday, even McAfee seemed to have had enough for the time being: he announced Rodgers won’t appear on his show again this season.

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