By Erik Wemple

Media critic|AddFollow

January 24, 2024 at 10:01 a.m. EST

Aaron Rodgers and Pat McAfee (Washington Post staff/Photos by Getty Images)

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About a year ago, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers huddled with his pals on “The Pat McAfee Show” and feted their accomplishments in the evolving world of sports media. He cited the “rawness” of the show’s format, deplored the “the bull---, the robotic same standardization of answers” on other outlets and credited the whole enterprise for blazing trails. “I think we’ve created an interview style that other people are trying to copy,” said Rodgers, who has been a regular on the program for years. “And I think [there’s] a lot to be said for that.”

Sign up for Prompt 2024 to get opinions on the biggest questions about the 2024 election cycleArrowRight

Oh, there’s indeed a lot to be said for that, especially these days. In a typically nonstandardized segment that aired on Jan. 2, Rodgers and the crew veered into a discussion of the “Epstein list,” a formerly sealed clump of court documents relating to the dead and infamous sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In certain internet circles, the Epstein list has become the focus of wild and irresponsible theories — and Rodgers invoked it in relation to ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, with whom he has sparred repeatedly.

“There’s a lot of people, including Jimmy Kimmel, that are really hoping that doesn’t come out,” said Rodgers in a reckless blast that was based on nothing and fed a weeks-long intramural drama. Disney owns ABC and 80 percent of ESPN.

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The drama took its toll on host Pat McAfee, who announced on Jan. 10 that Rodgers’s regularly scheduled segment was “done” for the ongoing NFL season. “With the way it ended, it got real loud,” said McAfee, who was stung by the social media backlash. “I’m happy that that is not going to be in my mentions going forward, which is great news.” Then McAfee turned around and invited Rodgers on the show the very next day for another round of commentary.

Who in the stuffy world of cable television pulls these moves? And what does his rise say about contemporary sports journalism? I watched countless hours of “The Pat McAfee Show” to find out, and the answer is that McAfee is another charismatic media star whose reach transcends whatever media corporation sees fit to sign him. He can do as he pleases.

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Every weekday at noon, ESPN makes a programmatic handoff of stark aesthetic dissonance: Off goes a sports talk show featuring impressively dressed analysts seated properly in a studio (“First Take”), and on comes a sports talk show fronted by a guy with a quiff hairstyle, perhaps wearing a tank top and forever shifting in his seat. That would be McAfee, a punter for the Indianapolis Colts who abandoned the playing field for a media career. If McAfee’s on-air personality is any indication, he was the best teammate a Colt could have requested: He makes space for his crew to contribute to the conversation and ask questions; he touts all the awards and distinctions of his guests; he stands in awe of their physical feats; he leads an untold number of ovations each show for the people around him, lending the product the feel of bro-driven bonhomie.

Advertisement

“The mustache looks great,” he told Rodgers last month. “Let’s talk about your toughness, let’s talk about your toughness,” he proposed to Rodgers in a November 2022 program after the quarterback sustained some punishing hits in a game.

Jocksniffing, you say? Maybe. But consider that McAfee launched his act on the internet in 2017, which has given the internet about seven years to sniff out a phony. It hasn’t.

What it has found, instead, is a fidgety talk-show host who escorts his considerable audience through every wrinkle of a wide-ranging, daily conversation. McAfee’s presence forces a sensibility pivot on the ESPN daily lineup, which is defined in large part by the polemics of franchise talent Stephen A. Smith — a force field of a man who has a passionate argument to pair with every news cycle. It turns out there’s a place for feel-good programming, too: McAfee’s show has been so successful that in 2023, ESPN paid a reported $85 million over five years to license it for presentation on various company platforms — though ESPN didn’t hire McAfee, who retains creative control over the product.

Advertisement

Business imperatives explain why ESPN let down its establishment hair for McAfee. The network’s subscriber tally has dropped from nearly 100 million homes a decade ago to 73 million these days. Time to find viewers on other platforms, such as YouTube, where McAfee has 2.4 million subscribers. James Andrew Miller, who co-wrote an ESPN history with the since-deceased Tom Shales, says ESPN executives woke up to the exigencies of modern audience engagement in part through watching how their children consumed sports content — a time-tested form of indoctrination for media moguls. ESPN leaders, says Miller, care every bit as much about McAfee’s YouTube audience (and other nontraditional platforms) as they do about the old-fashioned TV audience.

Whatever the platform, audience numbers get a boost from Rodgers, who has been a regular commentator on the show for four years. Smart programming there: Rodgers is a four-time NFL MVP with a gift for explaining the game. Ask him about the refs, and you’ll get strong analysis peppered with personal experience; ask him about himself, and he’ll disclose more than he’ll tell to the beat reporters — in fact, he verily brags on “The Pat McAfee Show” about dissing ESPN’s marquee reporters, saying they don’t have access to his “inner circle.”

What’s more, Rodgers spent 18 years with the Green Bay Packers, a franchise with one of the largest fan bases in football, all of them potential watchers of “The Pat McAfee Show.” When Rodgers in March 2023 announced his intention to play for the New York Jets, McAfee told him, “There’s 430,000 people currently, so a lot more people watching than normal, and they are all interested because you’re a f---ing dawg as a football player.”

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Nowadays, Rodgers has plenty of time to sit and chat. That’s where the trouble starts. The vibe of McAfee’s show is interminability: It runs from noon till “3ishEST,” according to its bio on X — and the Rodgers segments commonly persist for more than 45 minutes. In the same hour-plus appearance in which Rodgers made his comment about Kimmel and the “list,” for instance, he addressed meritocracy in the world of referees, the hairless arms of former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, alternative ways of treating depression and PTSD, and a controversial episode on the Cowboys-Lions game, among other items.

If the McAfee gang was planning to discuss Epstein and Kimmel, its members did a good job of camouflaging the scheme. Somehow the regulars lost themselves in an inscrutable discussion of the so-called Super Bowl logo conspiracy theory. Hawk, a stalwart on the show, asked, “Does this have something to do with the Epstein list?” Rodgers had his opening to make his suggestive comment about Kimmel. “If that list comes out, I definitely will be popping some sort of bottle,” added Rodgers, who was seated in front of his wine collection and has received more than $1 million for his work on the show.

Kimmel responded by noting that he had no connection to Epstein — and by dangling the threat of legal action. In a Jan. 8 monologue, Kimmel said that he would accept an apology from Rodgers.

Advertisement

He got, instead, a bout of hairsplitting defiance. In an angry Jan. 9 appearance, Rodgers noted that he’d said only that Kimmel hoped the list didn’t come out — not, you know, that Kimmel was a pedophile. Are we really to believe that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t understand the concept of innuendo?

You can have extemporaneous authenticity and all the fun that surrounds it. Or you can have carefully stage-managed, scripted programming and all the factual, responsible reporting associated with it. Pulling off both requires skills that McAfee hasn’t shown in recent weeks. He warned Rodgers that he would “check you … on anything you say that I know isn’t true,” though he conceded he didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off: “Let me know if I should check you, please — you have more research than me.”

ESPN has a history of convulsing over incursions into controversial topics, political and otherwise. Then-ESPN host Jemele Hill, for example, caused an internal ruckus in 2017 when she called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter. Jim Brady, who served in the mid-2010s as ESPN’s public editor, recalls that management deplored political commentary for the sake of political commentary. “If you’re gonna talk about politics, at least do it in the context of sports,” says Brady, summing up the guidance for network talent. Just what was the sports context for the Epstein comments?

Advertisement

Says Hill of ESPN’s McAfee deal: “When you buy the audience, you buy the problems.”

The problems are relative, especially in light of recent events on the sports journalism front. Layoffs hit most of Sports Illustrated’s unionized staff this month after its publisher whiffed on a licensing payment. On the one hand is a media outlet once famous for silky perfection in photography, writing, fact-checking, caption-writing, etc. — and its future is in doubt. On the other hand is a media outlet famous for off-the-cuff commentary, grunting, clapping and talking for 80 seconds about how to do No. 2 in a dark bathroom (for real) — and it’s thriving.

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About a year ago, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers huddled with his pals on “The Pat McAfee Show” and feted their accomplishments in the evolving world of sports media. He cited the “rawness” of the show’s format, deplored the “the bull---, the robotic same standardization of answers” on other outlets and credited the whole enterprise for blazing trails. “I think we’ve created an interview style that other people are trying to copy,” said Rodgers, who has been a regular on the program for years. “And I think [there’s] a lot to be said for that.”

Oh, there’s indeed a lot to be said for that, especially these days. In a typically nonstandardized segment that aired on Jan. 2, Rodgers and the crew veered into a discussion of the “Epstein list,” a formerly sealed clump of court documents relating to the dead and infamous sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In certain internet circles, the Epstein list has become the focus of wild and irresponsible theories — and Rodgers invoked it in relation to ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, with whom he has sparred repeatedly.

“There’s a lot of people, including Jimmy Kimmel, that are really hoping that doesn’t come out,” said Rodgers in a reckless blast that was based on nothing and fed a weeks-long intramural drama. Disney owns ABC and 80 percent of ESPN.

The drama took its toll on host Pat McAfee, who announced on Jan. 10 that Rodgers’s regularly scheduled segment was “done” for the ongoing NFL season. “With the way it ended, it got real loud,” said McAfee, who was stung by the social media backlash. “I’m happy that that is not going to be in my mentions going forward, which is great news.” Then McAfee turned around and invited Rodgers on the show the very next day for another round of commentary.

Who in the stuffy world of cable television pulls these moves? And what does his rise say about contemporary sports journalism? I watched countless hours of “The Pat McAfee Show” to find out, and the answer is that McAfee is another charismatic media star whose reach transcends whatever media corporation sees fit to sign him. He can do as he pleases.

Every weekday at noon, ESPN makes a programmatic handoff of stark aesthetic dissonance: Off goes a sports talk show featuring impressively dressed analysts seated properly in a studio (“First Take”), and on comes a sports talk show fronted by a guy with a quiff hairstyle, perhaps wearing a tank top and forever shifting in his seat. That would be McAfee, a punter for the Indianapolis Colts who abandoned the playing field for a media career. If McAfee’s on-air personality is any indication, he was the best teammate a Colt could have requested: He makes space for his crew to contribute to the conversation and ask questions; he touts all the awards and distinctions of his guests; he stands in awe of their physical feats; he leads an untold number of ovations each show for the people around him, lending the product the feel of bro-driven bonhomie.

“The mustache looks great,” he told Rodgers last month. “Let’s talk about your toughness, let’s talk about your toughness,” he proposed to Rodgers in a November 2022 program after the quarterback sustained some punishing hits in a game.

Jocksniffing, you say? Maybe. But consider that McAfee launched his act on the internet in 2017, which has given the internet about seven years to sniff out a phony. It hasn’t.

What it has found, instead, is a fidgety talk-show host who escorts his considerable audience through every wrinkle of a wide-ranging, daily conversation. McAfee’s presence forces a sensibility pivot on the ESPN daily lineup, which is defined in large part by the polemics of franchise talent Stephen A. Smith — a force field of a man who has a passionate argument to pair with every news cycle. It turns out there’s a place for feel-good programming, too: McAfee’s show has been so successful that in 2023, ESPN paid a reported $85 million over five years to license it for presentation on various company platforms — though ESPN didn’t hire McAfee, who retains creative control over the product.

Business imperatives explain why ESPN let down its establishment hair for McAfee. The network’s subscriber tally has dropped from nearly 100 million homes a decade ago to 73 million these days. Time to find viewers on other platforms, such as YouTube, where McAfee has 2.4 million subscribers. James Andrew Miller, who co-wrote an ESPN history with the since-deceased Tom Shales, says ESPN executives woke up to the exigencies of modern audience engagement in part through watching how their children consumed sports content — a time-tested form of indoctrination for media moguls. ESPN leaders, says Miller, care every bit as much about McAfee’s YouTube audience (and other nontraditional platforms) as they do about the old-fashioned TV audience.

Whatever the platform, audience numbers get a boost from Rodgers, who has been a regular commentator on the show for four years. Smart programming there: Rodgers is a four-time NFL MVP with a gift for explaining the game. Ask him about the refs, and you’ll get strong analysis peppered with personal experience; ask him about himself, and he’ll disclose more than he’ll tell to the beat reporters — in fact, he verily brags on “The Pat McAfee Show” about dissing ESPN’s marquee reporters, saying they don’t have access to his “inner circle.”

What’s more, Rodgers spent 18 years with the Green Bay Packers, a franchise with one of the largest fan bases in football, all of them potential watchers of “The Pat McAfee Show.” When Rodgers in March 2023 announced his intention to play for the New York Jets, McAfee told him, “There’s 430,000 people currently, so a lot more people watching than normal, and they are all interested because you’re a f---ing dawg as a football player.”

Nowadays, Rodgers has plenty of time to sit and chat. That’s where the trouble starts. The vibe of McAfee’s show is interminability: It runs from noon till “3ishEST,” according to its bio on X — and the Rodgers segments commonly persist for more than 45 minutes. In the same hour-plus appearance in which Rodgers made his comment about Kimmel and the “list,” for instance, he addressed meritocracy in the world of referees, the hairless arms of former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, alternative ways of treating depression and PTSD, and a controversial episode on the Cowboys-Lions game, among other items.

If the McAfee gang was planning to discuss Epstein and Kimmel, its members did a good job of camouflaging the scheme. Somehow the regulars lost themselves in an inscrutable discussion of the so-called Super Bowl logo conspiracy theory. Hawk, a stalwart on the show, asked, “Does this have something to do with the Epstein list?” Rodgers had his opening to make his suggestive comment about Kimmel. “If that list comes out, I definitely will be popping some sort of bottle,” added Rodgers, who was seated in front of his wine collection and has received more than $1 million for his work on the show.

Kimmel responded by noting that he had no connection to Epstein — and by dangling the threat of legal action. In a Jan. 8 monologue, Kimmel said that he would accept an apology from Rodgers.

He got, instead, a bout of hairsplitting defiance. In an angry Jan. 9 appearance, Rodgers noted that he’d said only that Kimmel hoped the list didn’t come out — not, you know, that Kimmel was a pedophile. Are we really to believe that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t understand the concept of innuendo?

You can have extemporaneous authenticity and all the fun that surrounds it. Or you can have carefully stage-managed, scripted programming and all the factual, responsible reporting associated with it. Pulling off both requires skills that McAfee hasn’t shown in recent weeks. He warned Rodgers that he would “check you … on anything you say that I know isn’t true,” though he conceded he didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it off: “Let me know if I should check you, please — you have more research than me.”

ESPN has a history of convulsing over incursions into controversial topics, political and otherwise. Then-ESPN host Jemele Hill, for example, caused an internal ruckus in 2017 when she called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter. Jim Brady, who served in the mid-2010s as ESPN’s public editor, recalls that management deplored political commentary for the sake of political commentary. “If you’re gonna talk about politics, at least do it in the context of sports,” says Brady, summing up the guidance for network talent. Just what was the sports context for the Epstein comments?

Says Hill of ESPN’s McAfee deal: “When you buy the audience, you buy the problems.”

The problems are relative, especially in light of recent events on the sports journalism front. Layoffs hit most of Sports Illustrated’s unionized staff this month after its publisher whiffed on a licensing payment. On the one hand is a media outlet once famous for silky perfection in photography, writing, fact-checking, caption-writing, etc. — and its future is in doubt. On the other hand is a media outlet famous for off-the-cuff commentary, grunting, clapping and talking for 80 seconds about how to do No. 2 in a dark bathroom (for real) — and it’s thriving.

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24.01.2024

By Erik Wemple

Media critic|AddFollow

January 24, 2024 at 10:01 a.m. EST

Aaron Rodgers and Pat McAfee (Washington Post staff/Photos by Getty Images)

Listen9 min

Share

Comment on this storyComment

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About a year ago, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers huddled with his pals on “The Pat McAfee Show” and feted their accomplishments in the evolving world of sports media. He cited the “rawness” of the show’s format, deplored the “the bull---, the robotic same standardization of answers” on other outlets and credited the whole enterprise for blazing trails. “I think we’ve created an interview style that other people are trying to copy,” said Rodgers, who has been a regular on the program for years. “And I think [there’s] a lot to be said for that.”

Sign up for Prompt 2024 to get opinions on the biggest questions about the 2024 election cycleArrowRight

Oh, there’s indeed a lot to be said for that, especially these days. In a typically nonstandardized segment that aired on Jan. 2, Rodgers and the crew veered into a discussion of the “Epstein list,” a formerly sealed clump of court documents relating to the dead and infamous sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In certain internet circles, the Epstein list has become the focus of wild and irresponsible theories — and Rodgers invoked it in relation to ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, with whom he has sparred repeatedly.

“There’s a lot of people, including Jimmy Kimmel, that are really hoping that doesn’t come out,” said Rodgers in a reckless blast that was based on nothing and fed a weeks-long intramural drama. Disney owns ABC and 80 percent of ESPN.

Advertisement

The drama took its toll on host Pat McAfee, who announced on Jan. 10 that Rodgers’s regularly scheduled segment was “done” for the ongoing NFL season. “With the way it ended, it got real loud,” said McAfee, who was stung by the social media backlash. “I’m happy that that is not going to be in my mentions going forward, which is great news.” Then McAfee turned around and invited Rodgers on the show the very next day for another round of commentary.

Who in the stuffy world of cable television pulls these moves? And what does his rise say about contemporary sports journalism? I watched countless hours of “The Pat McAfee Show” to find out, and the answer is that McAfee is another charismatic media star whose reach transcends whatever media corporation sees fit to sign him. He can do as he pleases.

Follow this authorErik Wemple's opinions

Follow

Every weekday at noon, ESPN makes a programmatic handoff of stark aesthetic dissonance: Off goes a sports talk show featuring impressively dressed analysts seated properly in a studio (“First Take”), and on comes a sports talk show fronted by a guy with a quiff hairstyle, perhaps wearing a tank top and forever shifting in his seat. That would be McAfee, a punter for the Indianapolis Colts who abandoned the playing field for a media career. If McAfee’s on-air personality is any indication, he was the best teammate a Colt could have requested: He makes space for his crew to contribute to the conversation and ask questions; he touts all the awards and distinctions of his guests; he stands in awe of their physical feats; he leads an untold number of ovations each show for the people around him, lending the product the feel of bro-driven bonhomie.

Advertisement

“The mustache looks great,” he told Rodgers last month. “Let’s talk about your toughness, let’s talk about your toughness,” he proposed to Rodgers in a November 2022 program after the quarterback sustained some punishing hits in a game.

Jocksniffing, you say? Maybe. But consider that McAfee launched his act on the internet in 2017, which has given the internet about seven years to sniff out a phony. It hasn’t.

What it has found, instead, is a fidgety talk-show host who escorts his considerable audience through every wrinkle of a wide-ranging, daily conversation. McAfee’s presence forces a sensibility pivot on the ESPN daily lineup, which is defined in large part by the polemics of franchise talent Stephen A. Smith — a force field of a man who has a passionate argument to pair with every news cycle. It turns out there’s a place for feel-good programming, too: McAfee’s show has been so successful that in 2023, ESPN paid a reported $85 million over five years to license it for presentation on various company platforms — though ESPN didn’t hire McAfee, who retains creative control over the product.

Advertisement

Business imperatives explain why ESPN let down its establishment hair for McAfee. The network’s subscriber tally has dropped from nearly 100 million homes a decade ago to 73 million these days. Time to find........

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