On the night of January 4, Patriots Nation seethed. Once again, ESPN was messing with their beloved NFL team.

“Leave us alone, ESPN,” one fan tweeted.

“ESPN coming out with another bias articles full of false accusations against the Patriots. What’s new?” another offered.

“ESPN trying to bring down the patriots is like that guy who keeps rolling the rock up the mountain but keeps getting crushed,” a third New England supporter wrote.

To hear Patriots fans tell it, ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham had conjured a false story of dysfunction in Foxborough to sabotage the NFL’s most successful team, either for ratings, revenge or some other nefarious motive. This was #fakenews at its worst and further proof that ESPN had it out for their team.

Their rage was fierce and decisive. And the story had not even been published yet.

Jan 14, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; Fans hold up signs for New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady (not pictured) before the AFC Divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler III-USA TODAY Sports

Many sports fans think the media hates their favorite team. In fact, rallying around a hostile commentator or radio host has become a quintessential part of the fandom experience. But Patriots supporters take this familiar dynamic to the next level in their resentment of the national media in general and ESPN specifically. In talking to Patriots fans and Boston reporters and reading through angry tweets and comments sections, it’s clear New Englanders think their team faces something greater than bias. As they see it, the five-time champion Patriots are the victims of outright persecution.

“It’s like every time they have the opportunity to go after the Patriots, it’s more fuel for the fire, for their ratings,” says Anthony Crisante, a longtime Patriots fan and owner of the website Boston Sports Extra, reflecting a widespread sentiment.

Patriots fans will tell you ESPN’s supposed vendetta against the Patriots dates to at least the 2007 Spygate controversy, when the network drew blame for overstating the severity of the Patriots’ videotaping crimes. But anti-ESPN sentiment among Pats partisans didn’t truly spike until the infamous Deflategate scandal of 2015.

New England fans haven’t forgotten Chris Mortensen’s incorrect tweet declaring that 11 of 12 balls the Patriots used in the AFC Championship were under-inflated or ESPN’s reluctance to correct Mort’s story when the information proved false. Diehards even recall Kelly Naqi’s report about a clubhouse attendant introducing unapproved balls, which was quickly shot down by colleague Adam Schefter. But beyond those (and other) reporting errors (which drew rebuke at the time from ESPN’s public editor), Patriots fans still resent how ESPN blew up the deflated-ball story into a national scandal. Two years after the controversy first hit, Boston Sports Media Watch founder Bruce Allen can still rattle off a long list of grievances against the network, from Mark Brunell’s emotional commentary on NFL Live to Stephen A. Smith’s claim months later that Brady had destroyed his cell phone to avoid investigation. (Brady did, in fact, dispose of his cell phone, though it remains unclear what his motives were for doing so.)

“Deflategate really turned [alleged ESPN bias] up to a new level,” Allen said in an email. “Segments like the one where Mark Brunell started crying and others where ESPN and other media were suggesting that the Patriots lose their Super Bowl spot or that Belichick be banned for life were running continuously.”

Anyone who has followed ESPN over the past decade knows its tendency to go all-in on a story (Brett Favre, Tim Tebow, LaVar Ball, etc.) and discuss it to death, and the network seemed to do exactly that with Brady and his deflated footballs. The story lingered in the news for weeks, and Patriots fans often took the coverage personally. Boston Globe media columnist Chad Finn rejects the idea that ESPN has a vendetta against the Pats but acknowledges Bostonians have something to gripe about when it comes to Deflategate, and Mort’s report in particular.

“That was the one where Patriots fan looked at it, especially as Deflategate escalated, and looked at ESPN and said, ‘You guys got this started,’” Finn said over the phone this week. “I think Patriots fans rightfully look at that and think ESPN had a big effect on what Deflategate became.”

Rightly or wrongly, many Patriots diehards blame ESPN’s over-coverage of Deflategate for the entire 18-month ordeal and for Brady’s eventual suspension in the fall of 2016. So when Allen reported that Thursday night earlier this month that Wickersham and ESPN were publishing a “hit piece” on the Patriots, many fans didn’t need to read the story. They already had all the evidence they needed.

This is where some ESPN critics’ frustrations cross from understandable to, arguably, excessive. Finn said the reaction to Wickersham’s story before it was even published indicated that Patriots supporters weren’t quite rational in their criticism.

“Immediately people started trying to debunk the story without knowing what was in it,” Finn said. “Whenever you go into anything with that mindset, I’m looking at you saying those sort of things and I’m going to stop listening to your opinion if you don’t look at something with clear eyes and don’t at least read it before making your judgment.”

As it turned out, Wickersham’s article — sourced to “more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team’s inner workings” — wasn’t quite as sensational as some in Boston feared it would be. Much of the narrative about tension in Foxborough had been previously reported or rumored. The biggest revelation regarded the trade of a back-up quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. The most provocative line suggested this year “might be” the last hurrah for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft.

Still, Boston leapt. Many fans have knocked Wickersham’s use of anonymous sources. Others have pointed to discrepancies between Wickersham’s report (which he and ESPN stand by fully) and information from Patriots’ beat writers, claiming the inconsistencies invalidate the story altogether. (It’s worth noting that even as beat writers contest some of Wickersham’s details, many have affirmed the broader narrative of tension in Foxborough.)

In an article headlined, “I Can Confirm the ESPN Report About the Patriots Infighting is a Pack of Lies,” Barstool Sports’ Jerry Thornton called Wickersham’s story “100 percent USDA Prime bullshit.” Citing his own sources, Thornton disputed several points from the ESPN piece, including the idea that Kraft forced Belichick to trade Garoppolo. To explain why readers should believe his sources and not Wickersham’s, he called the ESPN reporter a “useful idiot” and “the guy on the Contacts list of everyone with a grudge against the team, and the first one they call with unsubstantiated rumors and complete made up nonsense.” That was reason enough for fans, who gleefully bashed ESPN in the comments.

The reaction to Wickersham’s story was clearly about more than just lingering resentment over Deflategate. To many Patriots supporters, the team couldn’t possibly be so dysfunctional while winning so many football games.

“How can you go about saying that all these people have an internal problem with each other?” Crisante wondered. “How can they have such an internal issue and continue to win the way they do? If they started losing, I could see them having some internal issues just like any other team, but they’re continually winning, so they have to be on the same page.”

After 17 years of watching the Patriots thrive on the field, many fans simply believe the franchise can do no wrong.

tom brady-bill belichick-new england patriots-seth wickersham-espn
Jan 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) talks with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

As for why ESPN supposedly hates the Patriots so much, fans offer various explanations. Crisante thinks it’s all about ratings. Allen suggests ex-NFLers who now work for the network want revenge, while reporters resent the team for being uncooperative with the media. He also wonders if ESPN is in cahoots with commissioner, the only party who draws as much ire from Bostonians as the Worldwide Leader in Sports does. Others see ESPN’s alleged Patriots hate as a simple case of everyone gunning for the guys on top.

The most even-tempered of Patriots supporters, such as Connecticut native Alex Westine, see supposed anti-Patriot bias as less about an institutional vendetta and more about feeding the Patriot-loathing masses.

“In the public opinion, it’s popular to hate the Patriots,” Westine said, while acknowledging that he’s more likely to trust Barstool’s reporting on the Patriots than ESPN’s.

Wickersham is no rookie when it comes to Patriot-fan distrust of his company. In September 2015, he and Don Van Natta drew passionate backlash from New Englanders over a story calling the NFL’s harsh treatment of the Patriots during Deflategate “a makeup call” for its lax response to Spygate years earlier. But even after his second go-round as a punching bag for Patriots partisans, Wickersham remains incredulous that so many fans view ESPN as having it out for their team.

“We publish a huge amount of volume about the Patriots, in part because of their success and they’re always playing longer than everyone else, and in part because of the high-interest and the news value,” Wickersham told Awful Announcing. “I can’t speak for Patriots fans about what percentage of those stories are approved by the masses, but I’ve written on Tom Brady and Bill Belichick last year around the Super Bowl, and it wasn’t like I got any feedback from the Patriots’ universe that it was anti-Patriots.”

Wickersham has defended his reporting repeatedly over the past two weeks, and he emphasized to Awful Announcing that in 17 years at ESPN he has never seen bias against a given team inform editorial decisions. He’s quick to point out that ESPN welcomes Belichick on its airwaves and employs high-profile former Patriots such as Randy Moss and Tedy Bruschi and that well-liked beat writer Mike Reiss produces hundreds of Patriots stories a year, to little negative response. As for Wickersham himself? He lives in New England, has plenty of Patriot-fan family and recently bought Patriots gear for his young nephews.

An ESPN spokesperson pointed to various positive stories the company has run about the Patriots and warned of a friendly Rob Gronkowski profile to air on Sunday NFL Countdown this coming weekend.

“ESPN covers the Patriots fairly and objectively,” ESPN told Awful Announcing in a statement. “While this includes critical analysis, ESPN has produced a broad range of stories about the Patriots franchise, one of the most successful organizations in sports.”

But nothing Wickersham or ESPN might say will change most Patriots fans’ opinions. To them, the reporter and his network are haters trying and failing to bring down the unassailable Tom and Bill.

“Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been here and been highly successful for almost 20 years now. Kids have gone to school and grown up and had their own kids now and are experiencing this together,” Allen said. “But outsiders like Seth Wickersham want nothing more than for this to be over, and to be the first ones to have declared it over.”

Boston is as prideful a place as any in America and its residents can be defensive about its spot next to America’s biggest cities, especially that haughty metropolis just a couple hundred miles to the south. Many cities claim a with-us-or-against-us mentality, but Boston seems to really mean it. It’s why “Yankees Suck” t-shirts took over the city last decade and why “Barstool vs. Everybody” has become a lucrative credo.

After 222 victories and five Super Bowl titles in New England, Brady and Belichick have more than proven their “with us” bona fides. And by threatening (theoretically at least) the duo’s harmony, ESPN necessarily falls into the “against us” category.

It probably doesn’t help that the Patriots are short on actual football-playing rivals. The Jets, Colts, Steelers, Ravens, and Broncos have popped up here and there to challenge the New England dynasty, but none have lasted like the Pats. Fans seeking an enemy must look past other teams at league offices or the big, bad mainstream media.

“They think of it as, ‘us against Goodell, us against ESPN, us against everybody who has slighted us along the way,’” Finn said. “People look at ESPN and say, ‘You’re the one we’re going to stick it to.”

Mix Boston’s lust for rivalry with ESPN’s mistakes in its Deflategate coverage and the fact that top teams always draw more scrutiny than average ones, and you’ve got a perfect storm of fan grievance. In the end, Patriots supporters who claim ESPN maintains a deliberate, company-wide bias against their team have almost certainly gotten carried away. But just as Wickersham’s article wasn’t conjured from nothing, nor were fans’ frustrations with the network. ESPN gave a fanbase in search of an enemy reason to turn on them. Now they’re paying the price, disproportionate as it may sometimes be.

Bruce Allen and Chad Finn don’t see eye-to-eye on ESPN’s treatment of the Patriots. Allen thinks a critical mass of people at the network has a vendetta, while Finn finds that narrative absurd. But the two media writers agree on one point: ESPN won’t soon win anyone back.

“That ship,” Allen said, “has sailed.”

About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports, MLB.com, SI.com and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.