From Brady to Djokovic, Aaron Rodgers is not the first athlete to dabble in quackery

“I’m somebody who is a critical thinker,” Aaron Rodgers said, completely without irony, during his credibility-immolating interview on The Pat McAfee Show last week after news of his Covid-positive result broke the internet. And who couldn’t take the NFL MVP at his word as he sat on this Zoom call before a shelf full of books that may or may not have featured an anthology of MLK malapropisms.

What’s more, the 37-year-old confessed that his decision to bypass the Covid-19 vaccine for a homeopathy-based immunization protocol didn’t only stem from fears of an allergic reaction to the Pfizer and Moderna shots. It was also informed by medical experts he empaneled himself, and by more than 500 pages of self-guided research on the efficacy of vaccines and mask wearing – not least an Israeli study of 2.5 million people comparing natural immunity to vaccines. Never mind that Rodgers thinks he knows better than the overwhelming majority of scientists who say Covid-19 vaccines are the best way of preventing serious illness and death from the virus. Or that a recent study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found no evidence that polyethylene glycol, the mRNA vaccine ingredient most suspected of causing severe allergic reactions, is a threat. Or that the Israeli study that Rodgers was alluding to found the highest levels of immunity in people who had recovered from Covid after receiving at least one vaccine shot.

“I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and the ability to make choices for your body,” Rodgers said. Clearly, when your body is your business, you’ll do anything to gain an advantage. And through the years high-level athletes have proven especially keen to champion pseudo-science, even as claimed benefits turn out to be total junk. Before Rodgers was donning his sideline cape like a lab coat, Tom Brady was the NFL’s resident health authority whose tight embrace of Alex Guerrero (a self-taught masseur who has twice been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission) caused a rift in the New England Patriots organization. Together, the quarterback and the shady trainer hawk the TB12 method, a suite of high-end fitness plan designed to improve muscle pliability – an idea that Stuart Phillips, a muscle physiology expert at McMaster University, dismissed as “balderdash.”

On the tennis court Novak Djokovic is just as stretched in the role of wellness guru. Among other things, the world No 1 believes in telekinesis, testing gluten allergy by pressing a bread slice to the skin, avoiding surgery so the body can heal itself and using positive thoughts to detoxify food. At the Olympics the world was once again riveted by the sight of swimmers covered in dark circular bruises – yet more evidence of cupping, an alt-therapy that one anorak compared to bloodletting. It’s enough to make you wonder how differently the NBA might look today if Michael Jordan believed drinking Gatorade was responsible for his unparalleled successes rather than his grueling, unglamorous and mostly conventional fitness work with longtime personal trainer Tim Grover.

A decade-old National Institutes of Health survey reckoned around 40% of Americans had tried alternative therapies, but that number has surely climbed as reiki massage and cryotherapy have become more accessible. That was as studies of elite athletes showed 50-80% experimented with alt-therapies specifically to enhance performance. The urgency for any physical edge, however slight, makes them especially easy marks for big promises. And for many in this high-stakes body game, the absence of scientific proof is the attraction. (These millionaires didn’t arrive at their station in life by reading peer-reviewed studies, after all.) Only in an industry where winning is everything do you get Major League Baseball players taking the field in titanium-infused necklaces that were said to sooth aching muscles, improve focus and encourage relaxation – despite the inability to measure any of those factors. The placebo effect is a helluva drug. Even more intoxicating: the fear of missing out.

Of course anytime peak performance is pursued this doggedly, there are bound to be athletes who cross the line from quackery into outright doping. And surely Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez and Marion Jones won’t be the last to see their legacies tarnished by their affiliations with trainers whose alternative methods strayed too far from established rules.

But whereas the impact of their misguided health decisions only damaged them and their sport, Rodgers’s choice to hide his vaccination status, have a far wider societal implications during a pandemic that thrives in large part due to the spread of misinformation. And a week after appearing with McAfee – who had enough sense to let the QB hoist himself by his own petard – Rodgers returned to the show on Tuesday to take “full responsibility” for misleading the public about his vaccination status while taking exception to the criticism of his purposeful deception. Maybe Joe Rogan– the anti-vaxx bullhorn whom Rodgers said recommended he treat his Covid with ivermectin, a horse de-wormer – can prescribe something for those hurt feelings?

So far Rodgers, the league’s comeback artist supreme, has yet to Hail Mary his way out of this drubbing. Prevea, a Wisconsin-based healthcare company that arranges Covid jabs, dropped Rodgers as a spokesperson, while everyone from Terry Bradshaw to Howard Stern rained down condemnation – and when you’ve lost those two, you’ve pretty much lost the United States.

“I do realize that I am a role model,” Rodgers said at the start of his walkback interview. Sure, snake-oil salesmen are as old as civilization itself, but few would’ve figured going into this season that Rodgers would turn out to be one of them. But before you make “Throw Rogan” (or is it “QAAron”?) out to be the white Kyrie Irving, understand this: Irving, at least, had the courage of his convictions. Rodgers clearly hadn’t considered much besides what he personally stood to gain by not following the rules, and it’s not like he can hide inside his cryo chamber until the heat dies down. Oh well. A more critical thinker might have gamed his wellness deception all the way out.