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In wake of Ray Rice case, NFL’s troubles weigh on fans

Katherine Perry, a New England Patriots fan, says not purchasing a team jersey this year is her way of protesting the NFL’s initial response in the Ray Rice case.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

It’s a small protest; Katherine Perry knows that. But after the National Football League’s controversial response to a brutal display of domestic violence by a star player, Perry says she will not buy a jersey this season.

“I can at least choose where I spend my discretionary income,” said Perry, 31, a New England Patriots fan who is outraged by video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancee unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator.

Some of football’s biggest fans are feeling uneasy these days.

Football’s ugly side — the kid-glove treatment of some players charged with crimes, the growing evidence of traumatic brain injuries among players, reports of bullying and homophobia, even the contention surrounding the Washington Redskins name and logo — is increasingly intruding on the nation’s highest-rated sport among viewers.


“I do think that people watch football differently than they used to,” said Stefan Fatsis, author of “A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL,” about the time he spent as a placekicker at a Denver Broncos training camp.

“I love the intricacy of football,” he said. “But because we’re all so educated now — about suicide and early death and dementia — for most sentient fans, it’s very difficult to shut that out when you’re watching a game.”

The Ravens cut Rice and the NFL indefinitely suspended him Monday after the violent video surfaced. But an eruption of outrage from fans, sportswriters, and anti-domestic violence activists has followed, putting the image-conscious NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell on the defensive.

Even the NFL’s October campaign to raise money and awareness on breast cancer strikes some fans as awkward.

“The NFL will be plastered in pink,” said Perry, a human resources manager in Boston who spends Sundays watching the NFL RedZone channel. “It’s a great cause, but it seems a little disingenuous. They’re supporting women’s health, but [domestic violence] is a women’s health issue, too.”


In Brookline, Dennis Doughty, a vice president of technology at Blade in Fort Point Channel — and commissioner of his fantasy football league — says that watching his beloved game has actually become stressful.

“Every time a player gets tackled and his head hits the ground, you think he just had one more blow to the head,” Doughty said. “You get this pit in your stomach, and you worry what it’s doing to him.”

Doughty has no plans to stop watching football for now, but he is wondering if the 65-inch TV he’s buying in large part to watch football was a good idea. “I feel like I might have this huge white elephant in my house.”

He noted that, as one sign of the shifting opinions of the game, football announcers have changed the way they talk about injuries.

“Ten years ago they used this expression, ‘He just got his bell rung.’ Now they don’t say that. They realized it’s a trivialization of the problem.”

In Medford, after news of the disturbing Rice video, Patriots fan Vince Lavertino is looking at the game differently. “When I sit down to watch football I don’t want to think about the crimes the players are committing,” Lavertino, an engineer, said during his lunch break in Downtown Crossing. But now he can’t help but think about off-field behavior.

“I’m still going to watch,” he said. “But it bothers me.”


Indeed, fans are still watching in droves. NFL games on Thursday, Sept. 4, and Sunday, Sept. 7, each drew more than 20 million viewers, according to Nielsen. By comparison, the top rated non-football show, an “NCIS” rerun, drew a mere 10.6 million viewers.

The vast majority of fans interviewed this week around Boston — where the murder charges against former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez have been a major story for months — say they are not ready to give up on football, upset as they may be about a player’s off-field behavior, the league’s response, and other issues.

“You’ve got to separate between the players’ personal lives and football,” said Joanne Carrasquillo, a customer service employee from Brighton.

“I’ve got to watch the games,” said Christopher Rowell, an Amtrak employee from Mattapan. “I’m a football man.”

Nevertheless, some fans are fed up. Individual boycotts or threats of boycotts, are popping up around the country.

Before Sunday’s game between the Washington Redskins and the Houston Texans, Native Americans protested outside Houston’s stadium over the Redskins name. Chance Landry, owner of the city’s Southern Apache Museum, told the Houston Chronicle Native Americans feel the NFL isn’t showing them respect. “We don’t want our children and grandchildren to have to live with this any longer,” he said.

In August, after the NFL penalized Rice with a two-game suspension, Maine Governor Paul LePage — who says he was beaten by his father until he ran away from home at age 11 — threatened to boycott the league. In the end, it was a move he didn’t take after the NFL increased penalties for domestic violence or sexual assault to a six-game suspension without pay for the first offense and an indefinite ban for a second offense. A banned player can petition for reinstatement after one year.


Arlington writer Steve Almond is following through with his boycott. The author of “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto” — which argues that the sport “legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia” — says he stopped watching football before the last Super Bowl.

“If you really look at football, it’s very troubling on a whole bunch of levels,” he said. “I believe we’re at a moral crossroads, but change is gradual.”

“Against Football” was published in August, and Almond says he’s heard from people who call him a “pansy” as well as those who take its message so seriously that they’ve also stopped watching.

One such former fan is Irving Kurki of Brookline, a retired Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center employee. “The Jets were my team,” he said, “and it was a Sunday afternoon event for me.”

But now, he says, he’s come to realize that “it’s wrong to be entertained by a process whereby people are injured and their lifespans are shortened.”

Kurki said he’s not only stopped watching, but he’s stopped reading about football. So far he’s not suffering from withdrawal. “I was a smoker once, too, and I gave that up.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.