Image source, Getty Images

Celebrity culture tends to break into the American conscience in a way that political culture hardly ever does. The latest gossip about Paris Hilton's wedding or Taylor Swift's new album can dominate the national conversation. Infrastructure legislation or Joe Biden's latest poll numbers? Not so much.

So when a political debate piggy-backs on a cultural one, it can lend the issue more potency.

Such was the case this week, with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Sesame Street character Big Bird and Covid-19 vaccinations.

On Sunday, Rodgers sat out his team's NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs because he had tested positive for Covid-19. Rodgers is far from the first professional athlete to miss time because of the novel coronavirus, but his situation received extra scrutiny because it was subsequently revealed that he had forgone being vaccinated and misled the public about his immunity status.

The quarterback explained all – or at least, attempted to – in a remarkable interview with Pat McAfee on his SiriusXM sport talk show last Friday. After describing himself as a "critical thinker" not an "anti-vax flat-earther", Rodgers went on to offer a bingo-card worth of anti-vaccine talking points, with a dash of conservative "cancel culture" critique thrown in.

He said that he had put a lot of "time and energy" into researching the vaccines and had, with the help of medical experts, come up with his own homeopathic "immunisation protocol" – and that he never actually said he had been vaccinated.

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He explained that he was now taking a variety of treatments – in consultation with popular podcast host Joe Rogan (who contracted Covid-19 in August) – that included vitamins, monoclonal antibodies and the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, both of which the Centers for Disease Control have warned against as Covid-19 remedies.

He alluded to a history of "criminal activities and fraud cases" involving drug manufacturers and unsubstantiated concerns that the vaccines could cause sterility. He cited Martin Luther King Jr's moral call to object to "unjust rules". And he lashed out against his critics, of which there were many.

"I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and the ability to make choices for your body," he said, "not to have to acquiesce to some woke culture or crazed group of individuals who say you have to do something."

Those critics included former professional athletes like quarterback Terry Bradshaw and NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who said Rodgers damaged professional sport by perpetuating the "dumb jock" stereotype. Dallas Cowboys receiver Cee Dee Lamb expressed confusion over Rodgers' relatively modest $14,460 NFL fine for violating its Covid-19 policies, while he's had to pay $20,600 to the league for uniform violations. Radio show host Howard Stern called Rodgers an "idiot".

Image source, Getty Images

Meanwhile, conservatives – many of whom have condemned vaccine and mask-wearing mandates as government overreach – have taken up Rodgers' cause.

"Experts can be wrong," writes John Tamny, a vice-president at the conservative think tank FreedomWorks. "But despite this, despite knowledge not having aged well at all, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever is being criticised for deciding against one risk related to his body while taking much greater ones with that same body on a daily basis."

Rodgers' situation is difficult to fit so easily into the conservative-vs-liberal framework of ideological conflict, however. The quarterback has always been a bit of a cypher. Raised in a small California town, he was passed over by major collegiate athletic programmes before becoming a star at the (very liberal) University of California and, ultimately, being named most-valuable player in Green Bay's 2011 Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh.

In a 2017 profile, Rodgers told author Mina Kimes that he doesn't identify with political parties but supports civil liberties, human rights and addressing climate change. He defended NFL players who kneel as a protest against racial injustice during the national anthem and spoke out against a fan who shouted anti-Muslim slurs during a game, receiving a thank-you letter from Barack Obama, which he has said means a lot to him.

That's prompted a particularly intense form of backlash against Rodgers from the left – one tinged with a sense of betrayal.

"The thing about Aaron Rodgers is that we all thought he was smart," writes New York magazine's Will Leitch. "More than that, we thought he was different."

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For instance, in that ESPN interview Rodgers described his personal spiritual journey – about how he questioned his rigid childhood religious beliefs and grew close to Rob Bell, a liberal Christian minister.

In hindsight, however, the parallels between Rodgers' challenging of "establishment" religious views and the conclusions of the medical establishment are evident.

"I think organised religion can have a mind-debilitating effect, because there is an exclusivity that can shut you out from being open to the world," he said.

He also expressed a long-time distrust of the media that echoed last week's condemnations of the "woke mob" that he says is out to get him.

It's a flaw Slate's Josh Levin identified as "excessive openmindedness" – that Rodgers, in his attempt to present himself as a worldly, considered individual, failed to recognise a line between sceptism and denialism.

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To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, Watch: US mothers divided on vaccines for young children

Crossing lines on Covid-19 has become a theme for the week, given the other prominent vaccine-related cultural controversy – this one involving what seemed to be a rather innocuous tweet from Big Bird, a mainstay of the children's show Sesame Street.

"I got my Covid-19 vaccine today!" an account for the fictional bird tweeted. "My wing is feeling a little sore, but it'll give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy."

That prompted Texas Senator Ted Cruz to call the tweet "government propaganda" directed at children – a critique that was echoed by other conservative commentators and politicians.

Congressman Chip Roy of Texas said the bird tweet was another example of bureaucrats "undermining our freedom". (The government-supported Public Broadcasting Service funded Sesame Street for decades.) Actor Matthew Marsden drew a direct line from Aaron Rodgers to Sesame Street.

"How dare people take medical advice from Joe Rogan and Aaron Rodgers," he tweeted snarkily. "They should take it from Elmo and Big Bird."

For the most part, conservatives have aimed their criticism at government-enforced vaccine-or-testing mandates and other mandatory mitigation efforts, while still encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. The response to Big Bird suggests the political ground on the right is shifting. Efforts to promote vaccination among children, recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, are being met with growing scepticism.

Parental rights, particularly when it comes to religious upbringing and education, have long been a topic of Republican concern, so the rhetorical ground was already set.

"When it comes to vaccines, it ought to be your choice," Cruz said in defending his tweet. "And what we're seeing from Joe Biden, what we're seeing from a lot of big businesses, what we're seeing from sports leagues is they want to use government to force you to comply. And when it comes to kids, I think that's really pernicious."

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To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, Back to school causes fierce US debate over student masks

If that's the terrain of the debate, it seems to be one the Democrats will gladly fight on, given public approval polls support not just vaccination but vaccine mandates, as well.

Biden quickly tweeted out his support for Big Bird, saying it's "the best way to keep your whole neighbourhood safe". Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted a photograph of her with the big yellow puppet.

The speed with which political actors have arrayed for and against Big Bird and Aaron Rodgers underlines the power that cultural touchstones like the NFL and iconic children's television programmes have in American society. Politics, and political debates, may get scant attention until they disrupt your team's playoff chances or demean your child's favourite imaginary friend.

The way the controversies played out – evolving into debates over individual liberty, the role of "experts" in public policy and defining community good – touch on familiar themes in US politics, however. And they're ones that are sure to resurface again, even if they don't come clad in football padding or yellow feathers.