Two days ago, the Steelers suffered a surprising loss to the Bears. In any other week, a Super Bowl contender being defeated by a team expected to remain near the bottom of the standings would dominate the sports talk in the Steel City. But these are unprecedented times in the NFL. After an emotional weekend of league-wide demonstrations revolving around the national anthem, the City of Pittsburgh is already showing us that simply going back to sports might not be possible.
At Soldier Field on Sunday, the Steelers decided to stay inside the locker room during the national anthem. The idea, coach Mike Tomlin said, was to “remove ourselves from it.” Because the 53 players on his roster represent different races, ethnicities and backgrounds, he didn’t want the team to appear fractured based on individual responses to President Donald Trump having called for those who kneel during the national anthem to be fired.
So the Steelers remained out of view, with one notable exception. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star for valor, stood outside the visiting team’s tunnel, hand over heart, during the national anthem. Over the next 24 hours, according to multiple reports, jerseys and other gear in his name outsold that of any other NFL player.
After the Steelers returned to Pittsburgh, things got complicated. Villanueva held a press conference on Monday, apologizing for throwing his teammates “under the bus, unintentionally.” He did not mean to stand out there alone, he said, but had walked out to see the flag and got caught on the field when the anthem began. He then made the decision to stay for it rather than turn back. Separately, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger issued a statement saying that he wished the team had approached the anthem differently.
Some Steelers fans viewed the team’s national anthem no-show as a form of protest and posted pictures and videos to social media of themselves burning team gear. Most jarringly, as first reported by Pittsburgh TV station WPXI-TV, a fire chief named Paul Smith in Cecil Township, Pa., wrote in a Facebook post, “Tomlin just added himself to the list of no good N------. Yes I said it.” (After his comments were made public, because several angry firefighters reached out to the TV station, Smith apologized and claimed to regret what he said).
Villanueva, in his press Monday conference, said of his coach: “For anybody who thinks Coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America, or any one of my teammates, or the owner, I take offense to that.” And of the league-wide protests the Army veteran added, “People that are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military, they’re not saying anything negative about the flag, they’re just trying to protest the fact that there are some injustices in America.”
Some 300 miles to the east of Pittsburgh, in Philadelphia, Eagles receiver Torrey Smith, the son of an Army veteran, explained that he never participated in an anthem demonstration until Trump took aim at NFL players. Both he and Villanueva embraced the nuance, and the empathy, often missing from the polarizing debate over anthem demonstrations. “I understand why some people may be offended by people protesting during the national anthem,” Smith said. “My father served 25 years. When my dad dies, he’s going to be wrapped in an American flag, and that’s something that is special to him. But my dad also is out of the Army, and he drives trucks all over the country, and he’s a black man everywhere he goes, and sometimes he has racial incidents still today. So that doesn’t protect him, just because he served our country. He’s been to Iraq plenty of times. That doesn’t protect him from certain things that still exist in our society. I think that’s important. If you ask him, he’ll tell you, ‘I fought for people’s freedom to exercise that. Is that the avenue I would choose? No. But, I put my life on the line for that right.’ ”
In response to Trump calling for players’ jobs and referring to them as sons of b-------, the NFL did its best to respond with a message of unity. The word was used in statements issued by team owners, and those who didn’t kneel tried to convey that message by linking arms on the sidelines. But the meaning behind unity lacked focus. Only a handful of team statements directly referenced the president by title or name. And the issues that were the catalyst when Colin Kaepernick began the wave of anthem demonstrations last year—police brutality and racial inequality—were not among the talking points.
That’s not to take away what happened in 16 different cities last weekend, because it was indeed powerful to see such a widespread and comprehensive response 36 hours after the crude, irresponsible and unconstitutional words of the president took aim at peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.
But the fallout in Pittsburgh is a jarring reminder that those few moments of unity before kickoff were fleeting. The Steelers are one of the league’s most storied franchises, but they have loyal fans burning apparel and their most prominent player—Roethlisberger—making a point to publicly distance himself from a team-wide decision that was intended to prevent division in the locker room. (“I personally don’t believe the anthem is ever the time to make any type of protest,” he said.) And their coach, who works for a family that created an eponymous rule to encourage diversity in NFL hiring, has been called a racial slur.
Just stick to sports?
It doesn’t seem possible when the game has changed so much.
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