While all his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates hid in the locker room rather than be put in the position of taking a stand on the protests currently sweeping the National Football League, one player stood apart and stood tall on Sunday for the playing of the national anthem.
The controversy, as everyone in the known universe is painfully aware now, was kicked off last year by former 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began sitting or kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” at game time to protest the “oppression of people of color” in America. A slow trickle of other players gradually followed suit.
Last Friday, President Trump added fuel to the fire when he suggested at a rally in Alabama that any “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag” should be fired. This virtually guaranteed that many players who otherwise might not get involved would feel compelled to push back, and indeed, there was a surge of protests during last weekend’s games.
Members of both the Ravens and Jaguars, for example, took a knee while the national anthem was played ahead of their game in London. More than a dozen Cleveland Browns and at least ten Indianapolis Colts knelt before their contest. The Dallas Cowboys and their owners did likewise just before the anthem at their Monday night game. Thousands of spectators booed in each instance, and the hills were alive with the sound of countless fans at home collectively switching off their TVs in disgust.
But one Steeler did spontaneously choose a side as the “The Star-Spangled Banner” began. Offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger with three tours of Afghanistan and a pair of Bronze Star medals (one for overseas service and one for valor) under his belt, stood outside the tunnel into the locker room with his hand over his heart and sang along.
Villanueva played college football at West Point and upon graduation was commissioned into the United States Army in 2010 as a second lieutenant. He was deployed for twelve months to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as a rifle platoon leader. There he was awarded a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers while under enemy fire. In 2013 he was assigned to the 1st Ranger Battalion and subsequently deployed twice more to Afghanistan. After a brief stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, Villanueva, now 29, went on to join the Steelers in 2014 and became a starter the following year.
About Kaepernick’s protest, Villanueva told ESPN last year, “I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down during the national anthem with a country that’s providing you freedom, providing you $16 million a year... when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for less than $20,000 a year.
“Obviously he has brought up the issue in a great way,” Villanueva continued. “But I think if he encourages other players or other people in the stands to sit down, it’s going to send the wrong message.” The 6’9” veteran added that he would be “the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something” about racial injustice, but “you can’t do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country.”
For breaking from his teammates Sunday and respecting the symbols of our freedom and country, Villanueva became an instant hero to millions of American football fans who were fed up with the growing number of players pushing a social justice agenda into game time. Social media lit up about him. Conservative political commentators praised him. At Fanatics.com, sales of Villanueva's jersey skyrocketed, launching up to the third highest-seller in Steelers jerseys and into the top sellers around the league.
Coach Tomlin, however, seemed miffed. “Like I said, I was looking for 100 percent participation. We were gonna be respectful of our football team,” he said afterward. This disapproval and the overwhelming attention showered on Villanueva must have made him uncomfortable, because in a press conference the day after the game, he declared that he felt “embarrassed” when he saw the pictures of himself standing for the anthem, and felt bad for “throwing [his teammates] under the bus, unintentionally.”
He has nothing to apologize for. With his training as a soldier, Villanueva no doubt felt a tremendous loyalty to his “honor group,” an elite group of mutually respectful equals – in this case, his fellow Steelers. So it took no small amount of principled courage for Villanueva to stand apart from his teammates. He certainly didn’t intend for the gesture to reflect poorly on them, nor was he looking to make a statement, curry favor from the fans, or further the national divide over this controversy. Like Colin Kaepernick, Al Villanueva acted upon his conscience – but unlike Kaepernick, Villanueva put patriotism over politics, and that was the inspirational gesture that millions of Americans were waiting for.
From Acculturated, 9/26/17