What COVID Protocols Did Aaron Rodgers Break?
4:05 PM EDT on November 5, 2021
I'm going to apologize up front here, because this blog is going to come across like I am a total narc. Maybe I am, but then journalism is inherently a narc-y job. Yet I just can't ignore the big flashing red light of a question in the story of Aaron Rodgers testing positive for COVID-19 and the world subsequently finding out he was actually not vaccinated: Was he following the NFL's protocols for unvaccinated players?
Through a spokesperson, the NFL would not say whether Rodgers has been fined for violating protocol, but the spokesperson did say "the league is aware of the current situation in Green Bay and will be reviewing the matter with the Packers." The NFLPA told me that they have not received any reports from players about Rodgers or the Packers violating protocol. (Per the protocol, players are required to report any violations to the PA.) Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said that he is "100 percent confident" that protocol has been followed in the Packers' "football spaces." Teammate Aaron Jones wouldn't answer whether he knew Rodgers was vaccinated or not, but Rodgers himself said that the organization knew and all his teammates knew that he was not vaccinated.
Finding out what really happened with Rodgers and the protocol inside the building is going to take more time and more digging and some film review by the league office (teams are supposed to preserve footage from the facility for 30 days for the NFL's review), so let's start with what we know about the way Rodgers has been living his life outside of "football spaces." Rodgers told Pat McAfee on Friday, "I have followed every single protocol to a T, minus [wearing masks in press conferences]. My daily routine is the routine of an unvaccinated person." But a deep dive into Instagram shows that may not be the case.
Exhibit A: Here is Rodgers at David Bakhtiari's 30th birthday party at Three Three Five, an "upscale private dining studio" in Green Bay. We know this location because Bakhtiari's fiancée Frankie Shebby helpfully tagged it in her Instagram post.
Nine people besides Rodgers are in this photo that Bakhtiari posted on Instagram in early October (his birthday was Sept. 30). Packers players Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan show up in another photo in Bakhtiari's post from the same party. By my count, between Bakhtiari and Shebby's posts, there are a total of at least 18 different people photographed at the event, and at least four active Packers players including Rodgers.
If all four players were there at the same time, that is a violation of the NFL's and NFLPA's COVID-19 protocol, which says, "Unvaccinated Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 Individuals (including players) are prohibited from gathering in groups of more than three (3) Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 Individuals (including players) outside of the Club facility or team travel."
This party was clearly a private event, taking place at a restaurant, so we have a gray area here as it relates to another rule in the protocol. The protocol says that players can be fined $14,650 for "house gatherings of more than fifteen (15) people without the player and all guests wearing masks or PPE or where social distancing for the more than fifteen people is impossible."
There were more than 15 people there over the course of the party, and no one is photographed in a mask, but it did not take place at a house, so he might be in the clear. We also don't know how long Rodgers stayed at the event, or how many people were present while he was there indoors. He is only photographed twice at the party, once in a group of nine indoors, and once in a group of 14, this time outdoors, again with only Bakhtiari as an active teammate.
Exhibit B: The Halloween party.
Much has been made about Rodgers growing out his hair all season for his Halloween costume, which turned out to be Keanu Reeves as John Wick. But not enough has been made about the party itself. We know Rodgers went to this party because here he is, photographed as John Wick with some fancy cars in the background.
Again, thanks to a Packers significant other (Sydney Stavros, partner of second-string tight end Tyler Davis), we know the exact location of this party: The Automobile Gallery and Event Center in Green Bay. I found a total of 11 Packers players who posted or appeared in photos in costume with fancy cars in the background on Instagram. Most are photographed with their significant others, and none of them are wearing masks, including Rodgers.
No. 3 QB Kurt Benkert, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, was there. He has since deleted his Instagram post showing he attended this party with his wife and baby. No. 2 QB Jordan Love was also there. Bakhtiari, Lewis, tight end Josiah Deguara [Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said Deguara had deleted his post], center Lucas Patrick, linebacker Preston Smith, and offensive lineman Jake Hanson were all there.
I spoke to Darrel Burnett, the executive director of the Automobile Gallery. Burnett would not tell me which Packers player planned the private party for Packers players and family, but he did specify that it was a private client, not a team-sanctioned event. He would not confirm whether Rodgers was at the party, or for how long. He said there were around 30-something guests, and they were spread out over the 30,000-sq. ft. facility. Burnett said that Brown County does not have an indoor mask mandate, so they currently do not enforce mask-wearing for any events they host.
The party took place on Saturday, Oct. 30. Players were off after the Packers' Thursday night win at Arizona. Earlier that week, receiver Davante Adams tested positive for COVID, as did defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Receiver Allen Lazard, who is unvaccinated, also went into the protocol for being ruled a close contact. Because of the two positive tests, Burnett said the party was nearly called off. "Right up until two days before the event, discussions were underway as to whether the event was canceled, because of the two players who were under the COVID protocols," Burnett said. "The decision was made to move forward with the party, and again, those decisions were made on the client’s end, not ours."
Clearly, the Packers players wondered if having the party in the wake of positive tests wasn't perhaps the best idea. Rodgers was photographed on the dance floor, presumably at this same party, without a mask on.
If Rodgers stayed at this party longer than just to pose for a photo with just one other teammate, then it would be another violation of the NFL's and NFLPA's protocol, for gathering in more than groups of three with his teammates. The protocol also says that an unvaccinated player can be fined for attending an indoor bar or nightclub with more than 10 people not wearing PPE.
Exhibit C: The preseason sideline.
This was first pointed out by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who reported that Rodgers attended three preseason games this season, and did not wear a mask at any of them.
The protocol states: “Any such individual with Bench Area Access who is not fully vaccinated, except for Active Players, shall be required to wear masks at all times; unvaccinated Inactive Players (e.g., Practice Squad or IR) who are on the sideline must also wear masks.”
Rodgers did not play in any of those games, so PFT reached out to the NFL to clear that up. NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told PFT that “there was no violation as there is no active/inactive status for those games.”
What a technicality.
Rodgers addressed the preseason games directly to McAfee but did not deny he violated protocol. “During the time of preseason was during the time of the appeal,” he said. “I thought at various times that I was going to win the appeal. I think that people said I didn’t wear a mask during the preseason, um, but I don’t, I mean some of the rules to me are not based in science at all, they are based purely in trying to out and shame people. Like, needing to wear a mask at a podium when every person in the room is vaccinated and wearing mask, makes no sense to me. If you get vaccinated to protect yourself from a virus that I don’t have as an unvaccinated individual, then why are you worried about what I can give you?”
This brings us to Exhibit D: Indoor press conferences.
Rodgers has been doing his press conferences indoors, without a mask on, for most of this season. The protocol requires that "all players and staff who are not fully vaccinated must wear masks (surgical masks are preferred; gaiters and masks with valves or vents are prohibited) at all times when inside the Club facility."
There is no exception for press conferences or interviews listed, but this might be another gray area, because Rodgers is not the only unvaccinated player in the NFL to do an indoor press conference without wearing a mask. In an earlier version of the protocol, unvaccinated players were also required to wear masks outdoors. An NFL spokesperson told me the outdoor rule was removed July 30, when the league's medical personnel determined that the risk of transmission was far less outdoors than indoors. When media availabilities first began at the start of training camp, most teams held interviews outdoors, so neither vaccinated or unvaccinated players wore masks during interviews. When things moved indoors, the mask served as a scarlet letter of player's vaccination status.
The NFL spokesperson would not clarify for me what the current protocol is for indoor press conferences, and the Packers didn't respond to my emailed question. I talked to a couple of PR staffers for other NFL clubs to try to figure this out, and my best understanding is that when teams switched to indoor interviews, they stopped requiring players to wear masks because the optics are better. One PR person told me the league has not fined any of their club's unvaccinated players for doing pressers without a mask on, but they are now worried they may have been breaking a rule and not knowing it. A spokesperson for the NFLPA said that the indoor mask rule is "unchanged from last year for unvaccinated players," but did not provide further clarification on how that applies to press conferences.
One place with no gray area is that NFL protocol requires all media to be vaccinated in order to participate in press conferences or interviews. So I have an educated guess about Rodgers's maskless appearances on the podium. As Rodgers claimed on the Pat McAfee Show today, "The only time I haven’t worn my mask is when I am around all vaccinated people." I assume he's deeply grateful that reporters are willing to do the work of getting vaccinated so that he doesn't have to.