This Charlton billboard’s twist on the NFL kneeling protests sparked controversy

As Scott Garieri puts it, his family-owned Sturbridge jewelry store has anywhere from three to six seconds to grab someone’s attention with a catchy billboard, usually one laced with a pun or a play on words.

The latest one, though, has left people talking for much longer.

Hanging above westbound motorists on Route 20 at Richardson Corner Road in Charlton, the Garieri Jewelers advertisement shows a man on one knee, proposing to a woman on a football field.

“If you’re going to take a knee this season, please have a ring in your hand!” the sign reads.

It’s a clear reference to the national, politically-charged debate surrounding NFL athletes taking a knee during the national anthem to highlight issues of oppression and police brutality facing people of color in the United States.

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And since it was unveiled Saturday, it’s been met with just as mixed reactions.

Critics have said they would vomit on the store’s showcases and urinate on its sidewalk, Garieri said. His daughter, Alexandria O’Brien, 31, who works at the store, was told to kill herself.

On social media, some people have said it’s racist and tasteless. Others think it’s a clever twist on a relevant topic.

“Crazy. It was never put up there to be racist in any way, shape or form,” Garieri, 59, told Boston.com recently, adding that people have gotten down on one knee during engagement proposals for hundreds of years. “It’s satirical. It’s there to take a crazy situation and make fun of it a little bit.”

The national conversation surrounding players’ decisions to kneel, in part fueled by criticism from President Donald Trump, was thrust back into the spotlight this week after Nike released advertisements featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who was the first to kneel in 2016.

Trump tweeted in July that kneeling players should be suspended for a game after kneeling once. The second time around, they should be “out for season/no pay.”

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Garieri, whose store has been owned by his family since 1946, said the timing with his own advertisement and that of Nike’ was coincidental. He and his brother conceived the idea months ago, ahead of the fall football season.

But he credits the beginning of the flood of backlash to a Facebook post by the Rev. Laura Everett, posted Monday and shared almost 30 times by Thursday.

“In case we’ve forgotten about racism in New England…It’s stunning to flip the NFL BLM protests, and turn it into a racist marketing opportunity,” the post read. “Poor form Garieri Jewelers & Clear Channel Outdoor.”

Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, also posted on Twitter.

She could not be reached by Boston.com for comment Friday. The council told The Worcester Telegram & Gazette Everett is on sabbatical and out of the office this fall.

“It’s like you’re not entitled to an opinion — if it doesn’t agree with someone else’s (opinion), you’re wrong,” said Garieri, a former Sturbridge selectman. “That’s not how we are.”

A Trump supporter who would vote for the president again given the chance, Garieri thinks although everyone is entitled to protest, he doesn’t personally agree with the way NFL players have been calling attention to their cause, he said.

The actions are disrespectful to the country and veterans, he said.

“I’m 100 percent respectful to veterans and the way I think (the protests are) being done I find disgusting.”

Despite the billboard criticism, Garieri has been met with plenty of support, too.

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As the advertisement made headlines this week, the shop has garnered attention on social media from folks who’ve said the display is funny.

Garieri estimated the store received 50 phone calls on Thursday alone voicing support. He intermittently paused while speaking to a Boston.com reporter to field a few within a matter of minutes.

“We’ve gotten more calls for support,” he said. “The bad thing about it was that we’ve had people giving us one-star reviews who have never been in the store.”

O’Brien told the Telegram this week the billboard is not coming down.

“I think that the billboard speaks for itself,” Garieri said. “Again, we support our veterans … the billboard wasn’t meant to be disrespectful at all. We’re a small, family-operated store and we work hard on our reputation.”