By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick certainly believes in the cause he is ennobling by kneeling during the national anthem before games, but he doesn’t understand why his protests would turn fans away from their TVs.

The NFL’s sharp ratings decline has been one of the biggest hot-button issues in sports since the start of the 2016 season, and there is undoubtedly a myriad of reasons as to the causes. One of the major underlying factors across the league is the weakened on-field product and increasingly unwatchable broadcasts, bogged down by excessive commercials and penalty flags. But there is a vocal group of fans who took Kaepernick’s demonstrations as a sign of disrespect to the American flag, many of whom consider sacred. Many of these fans have turned away from the NFL, some of them permanently.

When asked about the NFL’s ratings decline and whether he feels his actions have been a cause of it, Kaepernick sounded incredulous – but admitted that he doesn’t understand how ratings work in the first place.

“I don’t know much about ratings and how they are affected and all of those things,” said Kaepernick, according to the Sacramento Bee. “But I don’t understand why ratings would go down, fighting for justice for people, to try to stop oppression, especially in a league that is predominantly black.”

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

However noble the cause Kaepernick is attempting to promote, he should at least understand that such a prominent demonstration would be polarizing for NFL viewers, many of which would view protesting during the national anthem as at best counterproductive and at worst disrespectful or ungrateful toward his country.

A new poll conducted by Yahoo! surveyed 1,136 Americans who identified as NFL fans, 29 percent of which said they are watching fewer NFL games in 2016 than they did in 2015. Forty percent of those viewers cited Kaepernick’s national anthem protests as the reason they stopped watching, which shakes out to about 11.6 percent of all fans surveyed. The NFL’s collective ratings are down by about 11 percent in 2016 as compared to 2015, as of Week 7.

Thirty-one percent cited “lack of opportunity” to watch games while 29 percent cited “lack of interest,” which would go back to the league’s watered-down product. Seventeen percent of fans watching less football cited presidential election coverage as the reason why.

As much as Kaepernick has a right to demonstrate and express his beliefs, the fans who disagree with the way he has gone about his protests also have the right to change the channel or boycott the NFL and its sponsors entirely. Even if the effect his protests have had on the ratings is negligible, the NFL has nonetheless turned off a segment of Americans who once viewed Sundays as a day dominated by football. The anthem protests and the subsequent backlash may not be the primary cause of the ratings decline, but at this point, it’s hard to dismiss it as a total non-factor.

Between the politicizing of sports and the broadcasts themselves becoming less watchable every week, the league will need to make serious changes if it wants to get its ratings back to where they were last season, let alone make them continue to grow.

Kaepernick and the 49ers play the Patriots on Nov. 20 in Week 11. It’s highly likely that he will again kneel during the national anthem before that game, and that the NFL’s ratings will still be in a freefall.

Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.