Aaron Rodgers stands up for his own type of activism without standing out.
For Packers star QB Aaron Rodgers, social activism is careful and often subtle
Andy Mulumba had never spoken to Aaron Rodgers. He was a shy, undrafted rookie at Green Bay Packers training camp in 2013, and somebody had told him Rodgers did not talk to rookies until they made the team. And anyway, what would they possibly talk about? Mulumba was a linebacker born in Congo and schooled in Montreal whose most recent football had been played in the Mid-American Conference. Rodgers was, well, Aaron Rodgers.
One night after team meetings, as he headed to the shuttle back to his room, Mulumba saw Rodgers up ahead, walking to his car. On the back of Rodgers’s T-shirt was an outline of the African continent. Mulumba looked closer and noticed one country had been shaded to stand out: Congo. Surprised and curious, Mulumba gathered up the nerve to sidle behind Rodgers.
“Why do you wear that shirt?” Mulumba asked.
At dinner that night, and over the months to follow, Mulumba would learn from Rodgers about The Enough Project, a nonprofit organization determined to raise awareness about conflict minerals from Congo used to create cellphone batteries. Rodgers insisted Mulumba join his efforts with the cause. The connection resonates today, even after Mulumba’s career has ended and Rodgers remains a Wisconsin deity. Both men remain on a board of “celebrity upstanders” for The Enough Project.
“For me,” Mulumba said, “it made me realize the guy accepts personal responsibility of his position.”
Rodgers occupies a unique NFL perch at a unique NFL moment. He is the league’s highest-paid player, its most prolific active pitchman and, in the eyes of the sport’s cognoscenti, its most talented quarterback, a peg above even New England Patriots legend Tom Brady, whom the Packers will play Sunday night in a rare and hugely anticipated encounter.
In many ways, Rodgers is the face of the NFL, whose players over the past two years have interacted with the wider world in unprecedented ways. President Trump used players who followed Colin Kaepernick and protested racial injustice during the national anthem as a political bludgeon. The league clumsily approved a new policy to address protests during the anthem, only to rescind it after unresolved negotiations with the NFL Players Association.
Those discussions were heavily influenced by the Players Coalition, a group dedicated to community action and reform that Carolina Panthers safety and Kaepernick ally Eric Reid has criticized for growing too cozy with league owners, who he believes donated money to the coalition to make the anthem controversy go away.
During that period, and throughout his career, Rodgers has wielded his influence and his voice in meaningful, cautious doses. Last year, he stated his belief that Kaepernick belonged in the NFL. He has defended the message of players who have protested. He has pleaded, in uncommon settings, for unity and common understanding. In May, he visited the Dalai Lama while in India delivering hearing aids for the Starkey Hearing Foundation.
Rodgers has used his massive platform, but he has also hinted at his progressivism without diving fully in. Former NFL cornerback and NFL Players Association representative Domonique Foxworth, an ESPN commentator and an observer of the intersection between society and sports, wrote a 2016 column for the Undefeated asking Rodgers to say, “Black Lives Matter.”
Rodgers, like the vast majority of NFL players, has not demonstrated during the national anthem. He has not joined the Players Coalition, although he was once an NFLPA player rep. Foxworth singled out Rodgers not only because of his stature but also because he believes Rodgers has it in him.
“It feels like there’s a clash between who he is and who he’s expected to be,” Foxworth said early this season in a phone conversation. “I think that’s true amongst a lot of football players.”
In 2013, a few months after they met, Rodgers convinced Mulumba to join him at an event for The Enough Project called the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative. Mulumba drove to Madison with Rodgers and actress Emmanuelle Chriqui, the friend who introduced Rodgers to The Enough Project. At half past midnight on an October Tuesday after the Packers played the Detroit Lions, Rodgers strode to the middle of the stage and spoke. Rodgers recalled driving out of Cowboys Stadium in Texas after the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2011.
“We just accomplished the most amazing goal in football,” Rodgers told the crowd. “But I’m sitting here with this semi-empty feeling because I had just accomplished everything I wanted to do when I was a kid. I kind of had this moment where I said to myself, ‘Is this it? Is there more to life than this?’ And the answer was resoundingly yes.”
Choosing his battles
In November 2015, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris, the Packers held a moment of silence before kickoff. One pierced the quiet by shouting, “Muslims suck!” In his postgame news conference, unprompted, Rodgers commended the moment of silence — “we’re a connected world, you know” — and admonished the fan.
“It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that I think puts us in the position that we’re in today, as a world,” he said.
Rodgers grew up in Chico, Calif., the son of religious parents in a conservative area — Butte County went for Trump with 47 percent of the vote in the last presidential election. When he arrived at the University of California Berkeley, football staffers quietly worried how he would fit into the famously progressive campus culture. Rodgers devoted himself fully to football, and they saw few signs of interaction with campus outside of the sport. In the end, though, they believe it influenced him.
“Incredibly bright,” said one member of California’s staff during Rodgers’s tenure, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an alum who guards his privacy. “He’s well-read. With that, I think he’s careful of his image and the image of the organization he represents. But at the same time, if he feels strongly about a particular issue, he’s not afraid to voice his opinion. I think he does it in a calculated, careful way.”
Rodgers has parceled out his beliefs. In a 2017 ESPN The Magazine story, Rodgers both explained how he had dropped any affiliation to organized religion and said Kaepernick wasn’t on a roster only because of his protests. Through his marketing agent at CAA Sports, Rodgers declined an interview for this story. This August, he expressed disappointment in how criticism of player protests had hijacked their message.
“I don’t know how many times we can say, as a player and as a group, how much we love and support and appreciate the troops, and the opportunities this country allows us,” Rodgers told NFL.com’s Michael Silver. “But this is about equality and something bigger than ourselves, and bringing people together, and love and connectedness and equality and social justice, and putting a light on people who deserve to have the attention for their causes and their difficult situations that they’re in. You know, people have their opinion — you shouldn’t do it during the anthem, you shouldn’t do it during this — that’s fine. But let’s not take away from what the real issue is.”
Rodgers has donated time and money to causes typical and atypical of a superstar quarterback’s philanthropy. In September, after Rodgers suffered a knee injury and led the Packers to an indelible comeback over Chicago, five Packers player representatives donated $50,000 to Legal Action of Wisconsin, with Rodgers presenting the donation. Legal Action is a law firm that provides civil legal aid to clients, most of whom are at or below 125 percent of the poverty level.
The Packers’ player engagement staff connected Rodgers and Legal Action. “The kind of work we do is exactly the kind of work Aaron wanted to support,” Associate Executive Director Deedee Peterson said.
Rodgers asked Peterson about administrative overhead, the kind of cases Legal Action’s lawyers took and the kind of clients they served. Only then did he lend his support.
“This is not to disparage your mainstream charity, because they do very good work,” Peterson said. “But talking about poor people needing a lawyer is very different than talking about how we need to raise money for children’s cancer research.”
Could he do more?
Fair or not, Rodgers’s outlook and stature have made some wonder whether he could do more. Rodgers stands out even from other quarterbacks in skill and perhaps even more so in his worldliness. Brady kept a Make America Great Again hat in his locker, and it was spotted by reporters in 2015. When pressed, Brady called then-candidate Donald Trump a friend, and he has deflected subsequent questioning with vague references to positivity. At one point, shortly after Trump’s election, Brady said to reporters that his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, told him he “can’t talk about politics anymore.”
The impact a white, superstar quarterback could make for NFL players fighting against injustice has been a frequent and somewhat taboo topic since Kaepernick first knelt and the NFL collided with deeper social issues. Owing to his talent, Rodgers can be seen by other players as an avatar for the white star quarterback.
“If somebody like, say, Aaron Rodgers got behind us, I think it would touch home for a lot more people,” Cliff Avril, then with the Seahawks, told the Seattle Times in September 2016. “At the same time, I see why they probably wouldn’t, because they don’t know what we’re going through.”
The NFL’s star structure places that kind of focus on quarterbacks. In the NBA, star players hold power, regardless of position. In the NFL, quarterbacks, with few exceptions, are the only players whose fame transcends the sport, and their primacy on the field makes them automatic representatives for their franchises. And in a sport where management views many players as interchangeable, star quarterbacks possess uncommon leverage. They can say what others cannot without fear of retribution.
“No one is going to be able to be as outspoken and honest as he is,” Foxworth said of Rodgers, adding that it applies to other franchise quarterbacks. “But I think if he is that way, then people around him who aren’t as valuable get a chance to do a similar thing.”
Of the 12 members of the Players Coalition task force, two — Chris Long and Josh McCown — are white, and McCown, a New York Jets backup, is the only quarterback. Earlier this season, Foxworth was asked what the significance of a white, superstar quarterback joining that cause, or one similar, would be.
“I’ve always struggled with that question,” Foxworth said. “Life’s unfair. But this is a particularly unfair thing, where there’s an expectation for black players and there’s no expectation for white players. Which, maybe there shouldn’t be an expectation for black players, but if there’s expectation for one segment of society, it should not be the ones who have been the victims for so long. The expectation should be for the ones who benefited, for them to take some stands and make some actions. There is some privilege and some power to being who Aaron Rodgers is. It doesn’t mean he has some obligation. But it feels like he wants to wade into it.”
Rodgers might dive deeper into social causes, but already he has made an impact. Mulumba remains involved with The Enough Project, and he remains grateful for the night he was a no-name rookie who summoned the courage to bother Aaron Rodgers on the way to his car.
“I believe he is somebody who cares about the well-being of people, the well-being of society,” Mulumba said. “He cares about these issues. I can’t thank him enough. We can’t thank him enough, for being part of this journey.”