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

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY ADAM KIL­GORE adam.kil­gore@wash­post.com

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.”

PAUL SANCYA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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