Reimer: Yes, some Patriots fans say they did stop watching this season due to anthem protests

Alex Reimer
January 25, 2018 - 12:11 pm

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

When Tom Brady connected with Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone Sunday to complete maybe his best fourth quarter comeback ever, my mind wandered to the hoards of Patriots fans who supposedly stopped watching this year after some players had knelt during the national anthem four months ago. 

I did not think many of them followed through with their boycott. And those who did, I imagined, are knuckle-dragging neanderthals who foam at the mouth while watching Sean Hannity. 

This week, I spoke with four lifelong football fans who say the players who knelt two days after President Donald Trump had called protesting players “sons of bitches” caused them to stop watching this season. Nearly twenty Patriots took part in the demonstrations, along with roughly 180 others. Three of the guys vow they won’t even check out the Super Bowl, while one admits he might give into temptation. 

I still think these four men are in the vast minority. The NFL continues to dominate television, with its games accounting for 37 of the 50 highest-rated shows this fall. The AFC championship was the best-rated program on TV since Super Bowl LI. 

Those numbers indicate the NFL’s declining ratings are more indicative of cord-cutting than anything else. Everything on television is attracting fewer viewers than it once did, except cable news, which has seen an upswing since Trump took office.

Besides, there are other reasons why fewer people watch the NFL. The league is bereft of star quarterbacks, and thus, good teams. Plus, football’s concussion crisis continues to intensify. 

I also still believe these four men are misguided. In my opinion, it is not disrespectful to kneel silently during the national anthem. That is our fundamental disagreement.  

But they are not lunatics. They are all well-informed, and in a way, principled. Most would not be able to stand missing Brady’s record-setting eighth Super Bowl run. But these guys, all of whom either served in the military or come from a law-enforcement background, are doing it. 

John MacDonald, who's running for state Senate against incumbent Democratic Sen. Eileen Donoghue, serves on the board of directors for Veterans Assisting Veterans, an organization based out of Dracut that raises money in need of veteran causes. Like all four men, MacDonald was quick to mention he understands why players protested and agrees about the importance of addressing police brutality.

But to him, the national anthem is sacred. Kneeling or sitting during the “Star-Spangled Banner” is an unspeakable social more. “When they knelt, as a veteran, I couldn’t support them,” MacDonald said in a phone call with WEEI.com. “I couldn’t support the NFL and its policies. Players have the right to protest, but I also have the right to not agree with them. I’m not going to say it’s been easy to not turn them on. But I haven’t. I refuse to do it. Until the NFL as an organization decides they’re going to talk to their players and make it a policy to stand and be respectful during the national anthem, I can’t envision myself coming back to the NFL.”

Dave Iarossi, a 56-year-old Air Force veteran who works at Westover Air Base, agrees with MacDonald –– and is frustrated few of his co-workers share his sentiments.
 
“I go around to people and I'm like, 'Are you guys watching? Are you guys watching?’,” Iarossi said. “‘Oh yeah, we're watching.' I'm like, 'Why are you watching? Don't you care about being patriotic?' These guys are like, 'We care about it, but we care about football more.' That sort of aggravates me. I feel like I'm standing alone sometimes.”

None of these conversations were political. Trump, if he was mentioned at all, was only brought up in passing. Ray McGinnis of Smithfield, Rhode Island takes the act of kneeling as a personal affront. “When I dig my heels in, I'm stubborn and firm in my convictions. Even if it hurts, I stick with what I believe in,” he explained. “I'm a very patriotic individual and the kneeling represents an anti-law enforcement sentiment. I come from a law enforcement background. For me, no. That left a really bad taste in my mouth. If Tom (Brady) would have Jesus Christ riding on his back while he played a game, I would not watch.” 

Brady did not kneel alongside some of his teammates. I asked each of these guys why they were prohibiting themselves from watching the GOAT, when he had nothing to do with the one-week protest. 

To MacDonald, Brady’s culpability lies in his silence.

“Tom Brady didn’t speak out and say, ‘What we did is wrong. Of course I stand behind the veterans. Of course I’ll always stand for our national anthem,’” MacDonald said. “He bowed to the pressures of the NFL, and I think he disrespected our veterans just as much as the rest of the team. I’m disappointed, and I hope at some point they make a statement to the veterans as a team that they’re always going to stand.”

Therein lies another fundamental disagreement: I don’t think kneeling during the anthem disses veterans, because the anthem appeals to every American citizen. There are veterans who support Colin Kaepernick and the kneelers. And, it can be argued, the right to kneel during the anthem is exactly what our veterans fought for. Peaceful protest embodies freedom of expression. It’s a patriotic act.

One of the boycotters, Jerry Odonoghue, who grew up a Giants fan due to his father’s affinity for the franchise, told me he does not take issue with Kaepernick. Instead, his problem lies with how the media has framed the story.

“I didn't think Kaepernick brought any of this attention on himself. He was just being quiet on the sidelines,” Odonoghue said. “But ESPN made a big deal out of the race component. I understand why they did it. But when people started to object to it, about ‘this is why they're not watching the broadcast,’ and they didn't want this to be overly dominant in it, then the general response was, 'You don't understand the issue.' As the year began with the preseason, it just kept getting worse. And I said, 'I'm not going to continue this. I'm getting fired up and I'm getting upset. I'm not enjoying it.’”

Odonoghue, a Cape Cod resident, picked a good season to stop watching the Giants. But it’s been tough for the Patriots fans, all of whom cop to still following the team in some fashion, to miss out on maybe Brady’s last Super Bowl. Iarossi admits he may not be able to hold strong on Feb. 4.  

“I'm not going to lie to you. I do miss it,” he said. “There’s no doubt.” 

This post has been updated to mention MacDonald's state senate campaign. 

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