STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- They stood at attention, hands on their hearts, in protest of those who wouldn’t. The World War II veteran rooted by the door like a sentry, the retired police officer doubling as a volunteer colorguard, the woman hiding her New York Jets T-shirt under a hoodie. Every patron, indivisible, under the roof at Joyce’s Tavern.
The jukebox rumbled to life, and soon blared a familiar song. Some in a crowd large enough to fill the bar’s main hall mouthed the words to the national anthem, the same one played repeatedly across the country before the NFL football games they refused to watch.
“There should be more people like us,” Joseph O’Toole, the owner of the bar, announced before asking all to stand. “There should be more people with the [guts] to stand up for our country.”
Allegiance is all the rage these days at Joyce’s, a sports bar situated some two hours MetLife Stadium, where the National Football League’s New York Jets and Giants play. Professional football is out. NFL games haven’t been shown at the bar since President Trump, at a September rally in Alabama, cursed the league’s players who knelt during the national anthem, igniting an unprecedented wave of social protest across the league. And the NFL may be losing its grip on some of its fiercest loyalists as a result.
“I’ve 100 percent aborted the ship,” said O’Toole, a 10-year Giants season ticket holder until this season, said of the NFL. “If you have such a problem with the country, why are you still here? I would respect [the players] if they stood for the country, the flag and what it represents.”
Until then, this Irish pub will black out football. Joyce’s has served customers on Staten Island, New York City’s smallest borough, for 61 years. It’s not the first local business to boycott the NFL in light of a second season of anthem protests over racial injustice and police brutality against African Americans, given an elevated stage this year, thanks to Trump. But it may well be the first to answer those protests with a protest of its own, and brand it as a promotion.
O’Toole canceled the bar’s football television package after Week 3 of this NFL season, a weekend of games that saw over players kneel or sit en masse during the anthem two days after Trump called the league’s protesters “sons of bitches.” O’Toole said Joyce’s is pulling in twice as much money now compared a normal football Sunday.
“I’m St.-Patrick’s-Day-busy every Sunday,” said O’Toole, in between confirming a reservation for 20 people.
As the NFL’s Week 6 played on elsewhere, the televisions at Joyce’s showed women’s golf and auto racing. When the Jets suffered another loss to the Patriots, 24-17, the latest in a history of ineptitude against their rivals to the north, nobody here saw. Instead, between 80 and 100 sports fans filtered through the bar, its capacity listed at 130, at some point throughout that NFL Sunday, specifically not to watch this country’s most popular sport. Served in its place: beer, discounted appetizers and a sizable side serving of patriotism.
Whether others follow suit and tune out could end up saying a lot about the power of this presidency, and the NFL’s enduring popularity. The NFL averaged 14.8 million viewers through the first eight weeks of the season, per Nielsen, down 5 percent from 15.5 million during the first half of last season, and 18.7 percent from the 18.2 million from the same period in 2015. It is unclear though how much of that decline is related to the anthem protests, which have spanned the last two seasons.
Just one patron at Joyce’s, a woman who declined to be interviewed, wore clothes with a football logo. Many wore shirts emblazoned with the American flag, some with designs that draped it over their shoulders like a cape. The bar hosts a fundraiser for charity every week it boycotts, and many in attendance donated money for Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas, the cause for Week 6. In Week 8, O’Toole says the bar raised over $2,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
But the main draw is a playing of the national anthem staged to spite of the NFL. At 2:45 p.m., as the Jets were squandering an early lead, O’Toole directed everyone to the front of the bar. There a retired New York Police Department detective held an American flag that nearly scraped the ceiling roughly 10 feet above. All stood at attention as the anthem played. Applause rang out afterward, followed by a playing of “God Bless America.”
“I’m beyond proud that we’re doing this,” said Danny Sprague, the retired cop. “All the protests are doing is giving a pulpit to people who should not have a pulpit to speak.”
Wedged between New Jersey and Manhattan, Staten Island houses around half a million people, making it the smallest and least politically reflective borough of New York City. It is the city’s only borough with a non-Hispanic white majority, and is home to a disproportionate number of the city’s civil service workers.
Bridges connect only to New Jersey and Brooklyn, allowing Staten Island to persist in a sort of arm’s-length singularity in respect to the rest of the city. The median household income is $70,295 at last count, higher than any other borough. The island voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The president won Staten Island’s republican primary by 82 percent, his best performance in any county in the country. Trump won the island with 57 percent of the vote in the general election, to Hillary Clinton’s 40 percent.
To a man, the boycotters at Joyce’s considered the players’ protests misplaced and hypocritical, and called the league divisive for not squashing them sooner. So as the anthem protests continue among some NFL players, the tavern’s patrons remain similarly resolute in the messages they seek to deliver.
“This is how I’m trying to make the country better,” O’Toole said. “If you want to make a belief or a statement, you have to do something about it. This is America. Express your opinion. Don’t be scared. I have the same freedom to express my opinions and beliefs.”
“They’re taking advantage of the flag for their own personal reasons,” said McKeon, 60, who distributed posters of flag paintings and whose shirt was stamped with an elaborate flag design. “What I think has been lost in this country is a general respect, respect for other people, a respect for life.”
Joe Trezza is a freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, Miami Herald, Esquire, and many others. He currently covers baseball for MLB.com and lives in New York.
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