The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of a Decision about Boycotting the NFL This Season

On January 1 of this year, I penned a piece the gist of which was that despite the awful player protests during the national anthem, I was going to watch the NFL playoffs. The post garnered me the heaviest excoriation I’d yet experienced since starting at PJ Media in 2015. The essay provoked more disagreement and disapproval than any previous or subsequent submission. Out of hundreds of naysaying and sometimes nasty comments, both here and at Instapundit, I think a grand total of one person stated in cautious agreement that he wasn’t going to let a bunch of spoiled millionaire athletes keep him from watching the battle to reach the Super Bowl.

That’s OK. Excoriation comes with the turf, as it were. If you can’t take extreme blowback from the public at large for your published opinions, go blog for Better Homes and Gardens.

There was one comment in particular that stood out from all the rebuke and made me think about the protests and NFL boycott in a way I hadn’t before. The commenter opined that my take on the issue was dated, coming from an older generation for which sitting around watching football games together was an important aspect of social life. He or she suggested that because of all the ways we get information now, the shared sit-down in front of the boob tube is not the hearth fire moment it used to be.

He or she is probably right. The Ellis-Thompson clan and friends have been turning football playoffs and Super Sunday into special occasions since the old NFL/AFL years. When our hometown Oakland Raiders were defeated by the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II, circa 1968, the family tradition became set in stone. That’s 50 years of sociality, bonding, food, drink, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.

The protests are misguided, insulting to fans, and disrespectful to flag, anthem, and country. That doesn’t make tossing a family legacy attached to NFL history into the dustbin a slam dunk. There were so many patriot players who came before, who proudly stood hand over heart when the anthem was played.

There still are such players. In one game last year, after Raider quarterback Derek Carr stood for the anthem, there were rumors (debunked) that his offensive linemen slacked off and allowed him to take unnecessary hits. And though I couldn’t have known the teams and game outcome when I wrote the personal essay, the eventual 2017 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles stood for the anthem all through the season and postseason, including at Super Bowl LII.

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Raider fans were disappointed in ’68 when the home team got beat by Vince Lombardi’s superior coaching and players. We got over it. The Silver and Black had arrived, all the way from our prestige-challenged city, all the way to the top of the AFL. The future looked bright. Two Super Bowl wins later, when Marcus Allen went the distance to cap a win in Super Bowl XVIII, we rejoiced, even though by then the Raiders had moved to Los Angles.

There were dark moments too for the city by the bay, none darker than on December 23, 1972, when Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris caught the “Immaculate Reception,” brutally squelching Raider Nation hopes of continuing in the playoffs in quest of a berth in Super Bowl VII. That one we never got over; it practically ruined Christmas.

When the Raiders weren’t living up to expectations, we looked across the bay to the San Francisco 49ers. “The Catch,” Dwight Clark’s heart-stopping reception of a Joe Montana pass, catapulted the Red and Gold into their first Super Bowl, and inspired hosannas heard from the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge and beyond. By the time the Niners walloped Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV, the dynasty era was in the books, and some sympathy for Elway and his Broncos was in order.

It is games like those, a history like that, scores of Sundays and Monday nights, memories of family, friends, good times, love of team, love of players, that make it difficult to walk away from the National Football League. It is the possibility of future heroics, comebacks, chokes, miracles, Hail Mary’s, walk-off touchdowns, reversals of fortune and ultimate redemptions that we are being put in the position of having to abandon (temporarily... who the hell knows anymore?)  because of the protests.

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Last year, despite my disdain for the inflammatory and counterproductive protests, I was not yet ready. My 90-year-old father and I drove out to longtime Super Bowl party-holder Chuck’s house in Newberg and watched the Eagles beat the extremely disliked New England Patriots. It was just like old times.

But it is not like old times. And it seems nothing has substantively changed regarding the anthem protests as the 2018-2019 season gets underway. The situation might even be worse.

Of course, there’s always college football; here in Oregon, we love our Ducks and Beavers. But if there’s one unassailable truth amidst all the disagreement, it would be the core truth that in terms of civic pride, professional spectacle, and watching the best of the best players who ever played the game, it’s just not the same.

This year, I can’t pretend the decision whether or not to boycott the NFL over the anthem issue won’t be an agonizing one, especially if the Raiders or Niners (or both?) do well and make the playoffs. I absolutely hate being put in the position of having to make it. Now that I think of it, it might be exactly that anger—only the Mueller investigation makes me angrier—that informs my sense that enough is enough, and fuels my intention to walk away from a half-century of NFL fandom.