Is ESPN ethically obligated to shut down wild speculation on the Pat McAfee show?

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Aaron Rodgers loves being in the news. Sadly, positive reinforcement in the form of clicks has taught him that, if he can’t be in the news for football, he can stay in the news with the ridiculous things that come out of his mouth. He’s in the crosshairs of the “woke” mob, telling America he was immunized (when he was not, in fact, immunized) was not a lie, the media is trying to shame him and “cancel” all unvaccinated people, listening to dolphins having sex has magical healing powers, he wants to debate Dr. Anthony Fauci about the efficacy of the COVID vaccine. Blah, blah, blah.

Why did Jemele Hill leave ESPN?

Rodgers shares these and other pearls of wisdom largely on ESPN’s Pat McAfee Show every Tuesday. McAfee’s ascension to the hallowed halls of Bristol, Connecticut (he actually films the show in Indianapolis), was no doubt driven largely by his access to Rodgers, and the access that gets him to other heavies in the world of sports. Last week, McAfee confirmed Andrew Marchand’s report that he pays Rodgers for his exclusive weekly appearances on the show — a sum that has so far totaled in the millions. That’s something that should have been disclosed to the audience upfront for sure, but it’s relatively common in sports broadcasting. That NFL “insider” that pops up weekly on your favorite radio station during the season? He’s being well paid to be there.

But the real problem with McAfee’s show is that Rodgers has begun using it as his own personal forum on the utility of vaccinations — specifically COVID vaccinations — without any pushback from McAfee. It started in 2021, before McAfee moved his show to ESPN. McAfee’s show was where Rodgers went to defend himself after it was revealed he lied about being “immunized” against COVID. Rodgers insisted he was, got dragged by fans and media alike when it turned out that wasn’t the case, and then whined that he was being “canceled.” That’s where Rodgers dropped this gem:

“And I go back to like these two questions for this woke mob. Number one, if the vaccine is so great, then how come people are still getting COVID and spreading COVID? And unfortunately dying from COVID. Like, if the vaccine is so safe, then how come the manufacturers of the vaccine have full immunity?”

He then declared himself to be a “critical thinker.”

Despite lamenting that the media is unfair to revolutionary thinkers such as himself, Rodgers has continued to up his rhetoric against vaccinations, calling Travis Kelce “Mr. Pfizer” (Kelce is currently appearing in a commercial urging people to get their COVID and flu shots), praising fellow conspiracy nut Robert Kennedy Jr., and challenging Dr. Anthony Fauci and Travis Kelce to debate Kennedy and Rodgers on COVID vaccines:

“Let’s do it like John Wick 4. So, we both have a second, somebody to help us out,” said Rodgers about a potential battle of the minds. “I’m gonna take my man RFK, Jr. He can have Tony Fauci or some other pharma-crat.”

And last week:

“If science is Dr. Fauci, you’re damn right I’m defying science.”

First, I would pay a lot of money to watch Aaron Rodgers try to keep up with Dr. Fauci, a scientist who has spent more than 50 years studying immunology, was one of the world’s most frequently cited doctors in medical journals for much of his career, has advised every US President since Ronald Reagan, and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work long before we’d ever heard the word “COVID.” Put it on pay-per-view and give the money to the National Institutes of Health. I’m sure A-a-Ron and his internet research will hold up beautifully against a world-renowned scientist.

But the bigger question here is what role ESPN plays in all of this? Rodgers has a right to his opinion, but it’s not one ESPN has to tolerate on its airwaves, particularly given the harassment and death threats Fauci and his family have received from anti-vaxxers. Does ESPN want to be the station giving voice to the demonization of one the most lauded public servants in US history?

Then there’s the misinformation. Rodgers has endorsed “his man” RFK Jr. for President. RFK Jr. has been caught on camera saying he believes COVID targets white and Black people. He believes mass school shootings are caused by prescription drugs. He believes the CIA was involved in the murder of his uncle, President John F. Kennedy. He, of course, believes vaccines are responsible for autism. His views are so extreme and contrary to science that four of his siblings issued a statement saying, “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same vision, values or judgment.” Kennedy has insisted he is not an anti-vaxxer and that he has vaccinated his children, but there’s a reason he’s been embraced by the anti-vaxx movement, and it’s not his sparkling personality.

When Rodgers appears on McAfee’s show, there is no debate about the COVID vaccine. What we get instead is Rodgers saying something trite that he thinks is really clever, and McAfee and his ever-present armpits indulging him by laughing like a hyena. This is what ESPN paid $85 million for? Where do ESPN’s ethical obligations to the public welfare factor in?

Former ESPN broadcaster, founder of Seton Hall Center for Sports Media, and host of the dearly departed Outside the Lines Bob Ley told Deadspin that the uncritical consumption of media is a problem.

“How many people critically examine what they are consuming in terms of media?” Ley asked, adding that he advises his students to “ask what’s the dog in the fight here? And what does it matter?” Ley also cautioned that the bombastic, “embrace debate” side of sports media isn’t revolutionary. “This is all part of the preening and posturing of the debate. It goes back decades. There are no rights fees for opinions. This is nothing new, this is just an increasingly agitating and toxic form of it. All in the name of getting one thing… clicks.”

This isn’t the first time McAfee’s show has run with a rumor that was never publicly verified. When Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams abruptly quit in September, McAfee, armpits out for the whole world, reported on his show that Williams’ home and Halas Hall had been raided, a report that was denied by the Bears and Williams’ attorney. McAfee then goes on to speculate on reasons for the supposed raid, ranging from drugs to “very, very, serious disgusting allegations.”

Nearly a month later, no one has managed to independently verify anything McAfee said on his show about Williams. But the rumors of nefarious and criminal activity persist.

What does this new world of podcasts and streaming shows — with larger media “partners” — mean to the public? Do media outlets have a duty to the audience to tell their sports shows to tone down the unverified allegations and potential misinformation?

“If there’s a demonstrated public safety risk, the answer is obviously ‘yes’” Ley told Deadspin. “I’d love to know …what sort of editorial oversights exist? On a day-to-day basis, who’s on your show, what are the strictures? What are the outlines? Where are you going with this? I don’t know that there is any regular supervision. In a perfect world, you’d have some. But again, success is measured in clicks.”

“​​Misinformation and disinformation is a very real problem right now,” Rowan University Associate Professor of Sports Communication and Media Lauren Smith told Deadspin. “Sometimes, both sides should not have a voice in a debate, if all one side can share is conspiracy theories and opinion not based in fact. If one side’s opinion can actively harm people, outlets should not be promoting it.” Smith added. “Aaron Rodgers and Travis Kelce could have debated back and forth on social media all they wanted, without ESPN getting involved.”

I imagine ESPN feels the same way, though we can’t be sure because reps for the network declined comment.

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