For years, Chuck Daly served as a dedicated and unflinching New England Patriots supporter.
When his New York friends poked fun at Tom Brady, he extolled the virtues of the future Hall of Fame quarterback. When the Deflategate scandal painted the team as a less-than-upstanding organization, he wrote it off the way most fans did: as an anti-Patriots conspiracy.
But then came a development that even Daly felt he couldn’t defend. In the midst of a contentious presidential election, the three figures most commonly credited with the Patriots’ success — Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft — all expressed support for their friend Donald Trump, despite many divisive and polarizing statements made by the then-candidate.
Now, at a time when Daly should be exulting in yet another banner season — Sunday’s Super Bowl LI matchup with the Atlanta Falcons will be the team’s seventh title-game appearance in 16 years — he is among a contingent of fans who admit to feeling somewhat . . . conflicted.
“With sports, there definitely are a lot of things that you overlook in order to just enjoy the entertainment of it,” said Daly, a 26-year-old South Shore native. “I was a Pats fan my whole life. I want to watch and love them and root for them. I just feel like I can’t.”
To be sure, a little ambivalence isn’t likely to shake the foundation at Gillette Stadium. Last July, Forbes listed the Patriots as the world’s sixth-most valuable sports franchise, one worth $3.2 billion. This season, like every other for the past two-plus decades, the team sold out all its home games. And just two weekends ago, more than half of all TV-equipped households in the Boston area were tuned in to the Patriots’ 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship — the second highest-rated non-Super Bowl game in the team’s history, according to the organization.
Still, in the months since the Trump-Patriots bromance gained mainstream attention, there have been scattered signs of blowback. A Change.org petition urged people to boycott the Patriots, though it didn’t get many takers. A smattering of participants in the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Boston chided the franchise figureheads for their bonds with the billionaire. (“Brady, Belichick, Kraft Love Trump/Go Steelers!” read one sign.)
And while none of the three Patriots mainstays offered outright political endorsements of Trump, the chuminess alone has led some to reconsider their allegiance.
“I find it very hard to support the Patriots now,” said Haji Shearer, a 54-year-old small business owner who grew up in Dorchester rooting for the team but is disillusioned by Brady’s friendship with Trump.
“When the Patriots win, there’s enough of my life-long allegiance to the team where I can still feel good about it. [But] when the Patriots lose — you know that hurt, that empty feeling, that comes when your team loses? I don’t experience that anymore.”
Slings and arrows aimed at the Patriots are nothing new, of course. Outside New England, many have long viewed the team as shady. That reputation was stoked by controversial episodes like Deflategate and Spygate — in which the team was caught videotaping opposing coaches’ signals during a game in 2007 — as well as a scathing 2015 investigation by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that alleged additional incidents of cheating.
This time, however, the unease has made its way to some members of the Patriots fanbase, one known for its ardent and passionate devotion.
The “Make America Great Again” hat that Brady kept stationed in his locker for a time put some on edge, as did the letter of support Belichick wrote to Trump prior to the election. Kraft, a longtime friend who credits the president with supporting him after the 2011 death of his wife, Myra, attended last month’s inauguration.
The willingness of three prominent members of the organization to associate themselves with Trump — particularly in a state as blue as Massachusetts — has left some scratching their heads.
“There’s a reason why teams have fish and [birds] on their helmets and not people,” said Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “It’s very dangerous for a team to associate itself with anyone but the most likable people in a public way. And politicians are almost always going to alienate at least half your base.”
And indeed, there are those feeling alienated.
Bridgewater resident Kelly McMorrow, who works for a musical instrument manufacturer, has spurned the Patriots in favor of the Bruins in the wake of the election. Meanwhile, Hudson native Marty Moran said in an e-mail that while he’s never before had a problem with athletes’ political endorsements, “that’s because an athlete endorsement (tacit or otherwise) was never before tied to a man who wants to burn civil liberties to the ground, bury science, ban Muslims, and brags about sexual assault.”
In Newton, longtime Patriots fan Lisa Frattini has resorted to compartmentalizing.
“In order to watch and not feel disgruntled or disillusioned, I really need to keep them separate in my head,” said Frattini, who calls Belichick’s letter of support to Trump a “stab to the heart.” “I’m basically just not going to think about the fact that they support him.”
The vast majority of fans, of course, have had no trouble keeping their football and politics separate.
“Being a fan of a team transcends any of this stuff that’s sort of background noise,” said Richard Johnson, who serves as curator of The Sports Museum. “If I discovered that someone is a Democrat like me . . . I think it’s really cool. And if they’re not, it’s not a deal-breaker.”
In fact, the very familiarity of a Patriots game has offered solace to some fans during an election season rife with mudslinging.
“It completely distracted me from the election and politics, even though there was that noise in the background with Kraft, Brady, and Belichick,” said Cathy Kleinbart, who was a Hillary Clinton supporter. “It felt good, and it felt normal.”
But then, there’s Daly.
The turning point in his relationship with the team came last October, he said, when Brady was asked during a press conference how he’d respond if his kids heard Trump’s version of “locker-room talk.” To Daly, it was an opportunity for the quarterback to condemn Trump’s hot-microphone claims that he’d groped women. Instead, Brady declined to answer, promptly leaving the lectern.
And so Daly began to scrub his life of all things Patriots.
The smartphone apps that delivered him the latest team news? Deleted. The Sunday afternoons dedicated to watching the team? Over. And the Brady jersey he’d proudly donned every week for years? Daly burned it shortly after the election.
“It’s sad in a way, because my dad still watches all the games, and he wants to talk about it,” said the TV production assistant, who splits his time between New York and Massachusetts. “It’s always been a Sunday tradition.”
As for the Super Bowl, he has decided to watch — his first game since Brady returned from a four-game suspension back in October.
But he’ll do so, he said, with a new sense of detachment.
“If the Patriots win, good for them,” he said. “But I won’t have that joy that I used to have.”