As NFL players engaged in various forms of protest to President Trump's latest round of inflammatory rhetoric, and commentators scrambled to find the nuance to describe what was taking place, news broke that the entire Pittsburgh Steelers team would remain in the locker room and skip the singing of the national anthem.
🤔👀🏈 A new take: Mike Tomlin explains why the Steelers will not participate in the National Anthem pic.twitter.com/2GgihKS2Ba— Fanatics View (@thefanaticsview) September 24, 2017
“We’re not gonna play politics,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told Jamie Erdahl of CBS. “We’re football players. We’re football coaches. We’re not participating in the anthem today—not to be disrespectful to the anthem…to remove ourselves from this circumstance.”
Aerial shots from Soldier Field in Chicago made it clear the Steelers had literally removed themselves from the circumstance, as the sideline players and coaches typically occupy was empty.
No Steelers were on the sideline during the anthem.— MADAME (@TheRoyalPosts) September 24, 2017
LT Alejandro Villanueva, a veteran who served in the Army, stood near the tunnel. pic.twitter.com/ZdL7MtvOwz
“People shouldn’t have to choose,” Tomlin added. “If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn’t be separated from his teammate who chooses not to.”
Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was oddly in both camps, as he went about his normal routine of standing during the anthem but was also noticeably separate from his teammates. Photos taken from a closer vantage point reveal Villanueva exited the Steelers’ locker room and stood outside the tunnel during the anthem.
If you were looking for a point during Sunday’s action where the claim of national anthem protests supposedly being disrespectful to members of the armed forces would emerge, this likely provided it.
Villanueva is a former rifle platoon leader of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. He earned a Bronze Star with Valor after helping fellow soldiers pinned under enemy fire while deployed with the unit in Afghanistan and falls on the other side of the aisle as it relates to standing during the national anthem.
“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,” Villanueva told ESPN during an August 2016 interview.
In a climate of hot takes and uninformed commentary, it’s not as if honoring the country’s veterans and active members of the armed forces and peacefully protesting current conditions need to be mutually exclusive.
The same ESPN interview also found Villanueva saying the following:
“I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay.”
Members of the armed forces and active police officers have also gone on record as supporting Colin Kaepernick. In the case of Villanueva, there was an attempt at nuance and empathy for a cause he isn’t completely in agreement with. That’s probably more than viewers can expect from the President of the United States on the issue.