Jimmy Kimmel explains why Aaron Rodgers' reflexive pedophile smear is no joke for any of us

The late-night host points out how the conservative strategy of weaponizing the word "pedophile" has consequences

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 10, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Jimmy Kimmel and Aaron Rodgers (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jimmy Kimmel and Aaron Rodgers (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Picture this. You’re on vacation when suddenly your phone blows up with an unwelcome interruption: a coworker has forwarded a statement from somebody he knows implying that you might be a pedophile. But it doesn’t stay between you and him. It goes viral online. Soon you and your spouse get phone calls and threatening mail from strangers.

The next day your coworker releases a subsequent statement apologizing for “being a part” of a situation that may have imperiled your family, explaining that it was all just jokes, talking s**t, and “[making] light of everything.” This doesn’t stop garden variety lunatics from continuing to menace you and your loved ones.  

People tend to reason that dealing with insults or scurrilous gossip comes with the territory of being famous. But maybe placing the potential harm NFL star Aaron Rodgers visited on ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel during an appearance last week on ESPN’s “The Pat McAfee Show” in a relatable context helps skeptics understand why this is bigger than two famous men exchanging insults.

On the Jan. 2 episode of "The Pat McAfee Show” Rodgers, a frequent guest, casually connected Kimmel’s name to the impending release of the so-called Jeffrey Epstein list.

“There’s a lot of people, including Jimmy Kimmel, are really hoping that doesn’t come out,” Rodgers said, referring to the expected exposure of more than 150 people's identities and links to the convicted sex trafficker. “I'll tell you what. If that list comes out, I definitely will be popping some sort of bottle.”

“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” was on break last week, leaving X as Kimmel’s immediate avenue to respond, “Your reckless words put my family in danger. Keep it up and we will debate the facts further in court.”

Cut to Monday, when the host’s seven-minute rebuke opened the first 2024 episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” elucidating the larger implication of Rodgers’ remark.  

After stating the obvious – that he was not on the list, never met Epstein and that Rodgers’ statements were false and damaging – Kimmel said, “You know, when you hear a guy who won a Super Bowl and did all those State Farm commercials say something like this, a lot of people believe it. A lot of delusional people honestly believe I am meeting up with Tom Hanks and Oprah at Shakey’s once a week to eat pizza and drink the blood of children.”

The audience chuckled at that, but Kimmel wasn’t joking. “I know this because I hear from these people often,” he continued. “My wife hears from them. My kids hear from them. My poor mailman hears from these people. And now we're hearing from lots more of them thanks to Aaron Rodgers, who I guess believes one of two things. Either he actually believes my name was going to be on Epstein's list, which is insane. Or the more likely scenario is he doesn't actually believe that. He just said it because he's mad at me for making fun of his topknot and his lies about being vaccinated.”

ESPN senior vice president of digital and studio production Mike Foss offered this statement to Front Office Sports after Rodgers’ insinuation. “Aaron made a dumb and factually inaccurate joke about Jimmy Kimmel,” he told the site on Friday. “The show will continue to evolve. It wouldn’t surprise me if Aaron’s role evolves with it.”

Not as of Tuesday, when Rodgers returned as a guest on McAfee’s show. “I’m glad that Jimmy is not on the list. I really am,” Rodgers said Tuesday, likely following the advice of his lawyer. “I don’t think he’s the P-word," he added, meaning pedophile. "I think it’s impressive that a man who went to Arizona State and has 10 joke writers can read off a prompter.”

"A lot of delusional people honestly believe I am meeting up with Tom Hanks and Oprah at Shakey’s once a week to eat pizza and drink the blood of children,” Kimmel told his audience.

Rodgers, a famous COVID-19 denier, conspiracy theorist and former Green Bay Packer who now plays for the New York Jets, has been a regular guest and veritable font of lunacy on McAfee’s program since 2020, when YouTube was the show’s main platform. McAfee’s producers additionally describe Rodgers as a “Super Bowl Champion, 4X NFL MVP, [and] Ayahuasca enthusiast.”

Rodgers has provided Kimmel with plenty of material over the years, mainly related to his demonstrated lack of intelligence. He’s treated no differently from the other celebrities Kimmel is paid to riff about when they engage in stupid and/or harmful conduct.

As Kimmel explained to his audience, Rodgers was probably most upset at Kimmel for mocking Rodgers’ “wacko idea that the UFO sightings that were in the news in February, were being reported to distract us from the Epstein list.” Kimmel surmises those jokes bruised “Aaron's Thanksgiving Day Parade-sized ego.”

And “The Pat McAfee” show has capitalized on what the host and producers describe as “jousting.”

The day after Rodgers hurled his allegedly jokey version of an incomplete pass, McAfee opened his show with a standard CYA non-apology. “I can see exactly why Jimmy Kimmel felt the way he felt, especially with his position. But I think Aaron was just trying to talk s**t. Now, did it go too far . . . ? Jimmy Kimmel certainly said that was the case.

“We obviously don’t like the fact that we are associated with anything negative, ever," continued McAfee. "We like our show to be an uplifting one, a happy one, a fun one. But it’s because we talk s**t and try to make light of everything. Some things, obviously people get very pissed off about especially when they’re that serious [of] allegations.

“So we apologize for being a part of it,” he concluded, adding, “Can’t wait to hear what Aaron has to say about it. Hopefully those two will just be able to settle this – not court-wise, but be able to chit-chat and move along. Because remember, you’re allowed to disagree with people’s opinions.” 

Here is where I hope someone at Disney steps in to clarify the difference between opinion and slander by way of consequences. They may also want to have McAfee sit through an employee seminar explaining the difference between what Kimmel does and what Rodgers tried, although the host delivered a fine explanation during that monologue.

“We say a lot of things on this show. We don’t make up lies,” Kimmel said, explaining that he has an entire team dedicated to fact-checking his jokes before he says them on national television. “And that’s an important distinction. A joke about someone — even when that someone is Donald Trump, a person who lies from the minute he wakes up until the minute he’s smearing orange makeup on his MyPillow at night — even he deserves that consideration, and we give it to him. Because the truth still matters.”

That means it should also matter to Disney, which owns both ABC and ESPN. Possible legal ramifications aside, we’re looking at one of the media conglomerate’s stars having to deal with threats from unhinged members of the public, brought on by something that was said by a recurring guest on another of its shows.

McAfee’s attempt to write off this conflict as a difference of opinion is especially galling. Insinuating Kimmel may be a pedophile is not an opinion. In the minds of some people, accusing anyone of being a child molester makes that person a worthy target for harassment and violence, with the understanding that people who target children for harm are somehow less than human.

“All these nuts do it now,” Kimmel said. “You don't like Trump? You're a pedophile. It's their go-to move. And it shows you how much they actually care about pedophilia.”

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I’m wagering the company is affording Kimmel and his family (including his wife Molly McNearney, co-head writer for "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and fellow Disney employee) more protection than, say, "Percy Jackson" star Leah Jeffries or “Little Mermaid” lead Halle Bailey received when racists trolls came for them online.

Another takeaway from this is that if a man whom millions welcome into their daily routine is contending with this level of harassment, imagine the level of fear and anxiety government workers and politicians are facing from MAGA fanatics.

On Tuesday the Washington Post published an article listing the surge of violent threats against elected officials as we barrel toward the 2024 presidential contest.

“Bomb threats last week caused evacuations at state capitol buildings across the country,” it says. “Federal authorities arrested and charged a man with threatening to kill a congressman and his children, while other members of Congress dealt with swatting incidents.”

“We say a lot of things on this show. We don’t make up lies,” said Kimmel.

Most of these people aren’t folks who appear on cable news shows or other high-profile platforms. They’re federal judges and state officials. The Maine secretary of state and the Colorado Supreme Court drew death threats after Trump excoriated them at rallies and in social media posts for deeming him ineligible to run for the presidency.

In another recent story by Vox, the reporter spoke with Maricopa County recorder Stephen Richer, a lifelong Republican, who was physically threatened by “Stop the Steal” zealots in 2021 when the Big Lie started taking hold. He describes being physically dragged back into a Republican meeting he tried to leave, as well as facing people angrily banging on his car windshield.

This comports with the findings of a new poll conducted by Democratic research firm Navigator, citing that 83 percent of participants are concerned about the escalating threat of political violence in the U.S. 

On Tuesday Rodgers blamed the media for making more of this situation than it merits. ("This is what they do. They try and cancel, you know? And it is not just me,” he said.) But Kimmel’s immediate response to his swipe illustrates why what Rodgers said isn’t some harmless gag.

Never forget that the Big Lie began with “talking s**t.” Trump’s incendiary calls to violence during his 2016 political rallies were written off by his followers as jokes, like when he ordered the crowd to remove a protester at a Kentucky rally by saying, “Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do I’ll defend you in court.” Or, remember when he earned whoops and cheers by reacting to a Las Vegas demonstrator with “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

“Are Trump rallies the most fun?” he told the Kentucky crowd. “We’re having a good time.”

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JK! Only joking! He doesn’t mean what he’s saying! That excuse has calcified into cover for despicable people to make detrimental claims against others. That applies to your Garden Variety X antagonist and Elon Musk. It also applies to Rodgers and his enabler McAfee.

When ESPN signed McAfee last year to a five-year, $85 million contract, the former NFL Colts punter had already earned many millions of dollars in sponsorships for his YouTube series. It now runs on ESPN, the network’s YouTube channel and ESPN+. 

ESPN hopes McAfee will pull in younger fans who have been abandoning linear broadcasts. I don’t cover sports or sportscasting, but those who do are questioning whether that investment is getting enough of a return to deal with the trouble that McAfee and his friend Rodgers are causing.

On Monday Kimmel’s takeaway was more straightforward. “My real hope, the reason I even bring this up, is because I hope the many, many decent people out there who vote conservative . . . I want to say this, and I hope you'll listen to give it a little bit of consideration. If you are a member of a group that thinks it's OK to randomly call someone a child molester because you don't like what that person has to say, maybe you should rethink being a part of that group.”

“And by the way,” he concluded, “if you're looking for someone who actually was a friend of Jeffrey Epstein, who called him a terrific guy and bragged about his affinity for younger women, I have very good news, Epstein hunters. I found one for you.” Then he rolled the widely circulated clip of Trump in his younger days laughing with Epstein at a party while ogling a group of women.

It’s not funny. Because it’s true.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Aaron Rodgers Bob Iger Commentary Conservatives Disney Espn Jeffrey Epstein Jimmy Kimmel Media