Super Bowl LII was the culmination of yet another NFL season. For some spectators who persevered through an autumn of player protests and fan blowback, this year’s championship was something more – a relief.
On Sunday, those who packed the bars of downtown Napa restaurants could enjoy a nearly four-hour gridiron clash as the New England Patriots aimed for their fifth Super Bowl victory, and the Philadelphia Eagles sought their first. It would be a tidy and clear conclusion to the 2017 season between the sidelines – tidier, indeed, than that discord between supporters and opponents of the players who have kneeled during pregame playings of the national anthem to protest racism and inequality, and who had been attacked by President Trump as unpatriotic.
At Downtown Joe’s, waiters and bartenders arrayed the Main Street brewpub, and themselves, for the occasion as they have for Super Bowls past. Numerous televisions showed the action above the bar, and bartenders poured drafts while sporting NFL jerseys – including the number 7 of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling for “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2016 and has gone unsigned this season.
“We’re telling people to come an hour early for a seat at the bar, because it’s first-come, first-served,” said Natalie Tobler, daughter of Downtown Joe’s owner Joe Peatman.
Statistics show that television ratings for NFL games have gone down in back-to-back seasons, triggering debate as to whether fans boycotting protests have played a role.
At the brewpub, however, Tobler saw little effect, perhaps because of the variety of fan interests passing through a tourist haven.
“We’ve been consistent; as the (largest) sports bar in Napa we get out people who want to see their team play their game,” she said an hour before the 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
Among the pregame diners were a mother, son and daughter who were watching the game more than 1,900 miles from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis – the home field of the Minnesota Vikings, their home-state team, who would have played the Super Bowl on familiar ground but for their loss to the Eagles two weeks earlier.
“I found it hard to believe that people felt so strongly about it,” mused Brenda Olinger of St. Cloud, Minnesota, who had traveled west with her daughter Britta to spend the weekend in Napa with her son Warren, a Merced resident. “If people want to watch the games, they have every right to do so. It is, after all, a game.”
For her son, the contest was a way to exhale after a tumultuous few weeks as a Vikings fan.
“I was in a funk for about a week; it took a weekend of not thinking about football to get past it,” said Warren Olinger. “But it’s not like you’re going to miss the Super Bowl,” he added – though he volunteered a Vikings victory would have sent him on the first flight east, to score a Super Bowl ticket or at least watch the game with friends.
At the other end of the bar, another spectator could see both sides of the anthem debate, but pointed to the inability of Kaepernick, the originator of the protest, to sign with another team since the 49ers released him a year ago.
“There’s two sides to it,” said Pedro Perez of Napa, who with his brother Javi took up a spot near one end of the bar to cheer for the Patriots. “A lot of people found it offensive, and other people saw it as standing up for their rights. But when the NFL is backed up against it, they’ll push people like Kaepernick out of the way.’
Perez dismissed the seriousness of many people claiming to swear off pro football over athletes’ political gestures, especially for a game that draws more than 100 million TV viewers nationwide.
“I’ve heard people say that, but they’ll always turn on the TV and open a cold one,” he said with a chuckle. People who said they wouldn’t watch the NFL are still watching the NFL.”
Other football fans claimed seats on First Street at the Norman Rose Tavern as game time approached.
“Eagles all the way! We hate the Patriots,” declared Adam Braunstein. He sported a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey – his favored team despite being a Napa native – as he sipped pints with his wife Stacy, who also donned the Pittsburgh black-and-gold.
The Braunsteins left no doubt where they stood on athletes laying out their views for fans to see. “I support him wholeheartedly,” Stacy declared of Kaepernick, who took the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl.
And what of Trump’s call to fire kneeling players? “I think Trump’s an idiot – and please do quote me on that one,” Adam retorted.
Elsewhere, the billiards tables were mostly empty at Billco’s, where guests instead bellied up to the long bar at one side. One, a veteran of 12 years in the Marine Corps, could see the point of view of those speaking out for racial justice – but still could not support their chosen arena in which to do so.
“Being a former military guy, I didn’t think it was the proper venue to do it,” said Charlez Carter of Napa. “I understand that there’s still problems in our country, but I think (the protests) should be done differently.”
A few chairs away were Brian and Angella Linehan, who had first met at Billco’s 13 years ago and later married. Faded and chipped, but still intact, was the No. 28 jersey of former running back Marshall Faulk of the then-St. Louis Rams – the first team defeated in a Super Bowl by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in 2002.
The kneeling of players and the resulting controversy had upset Angella in the early weeks, “but I then I thought about it, and I thought, everyone has the right of free speech, and the kneeling was respectful; it wasn’t disrespectful,” she recalled.
The couple’s support for protesters had not created much friction in their social circle, added Brian, “but I’ve got some family members who disagree.”
“And that’s their right!” replied Angella, laughing.