Alejandro Villanueva has nothing to apologize for.
Not his stance on the national anthem, not his stand during the anthem and not his miscommunication with his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates.
It looked to the world on Sunday like the former Army Ranger had broken ranks when he appeared alone in the tunnel in Chicago, hand on heart, singing the national anthem before his team faced the Bears. A short time before, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin insisted that the team took an all-or-nothing approach to the ongoing protest movement: either the Steelers would all appear on the sideline for the anthem or none.
The team chose none.
Then there was the offensive lineman standing tall and proud. It caused his jersey to skyrocket to the top of sales lists on Monday – unheard of for an offensive lineman. Here, it seemed, was a man who wanted to honor his country no matter what the coach said. And for the many across the nation who disagree with the protests, here was a football hero with a military background.
The truth is a little more complicated. Villanueva had apparently met with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Saturday night and wanted to do something to show his appreciation during the anthem. The team would stand together, just out of public view. That way they could honor their country and still show team unity.
But in the crowded tunnel, in a confusing moment, Villanueva came out and stood while teammates gathered a short distance behind him. He was caught; does he turn and walk backward during the anthem? He certainly didn’t want to do that. Roethlisberger later regretted not moving out to stand with his lineman, though that would have seemed like a mutiny.
“We butchered our plan to sort of have a response for the national anthem and respect everyone’s opinion,” Villanueva said Monday.
He butchered nothing. He wanted to stand for the anthem, and he did it, and no one can reasonably say he did that the wrong way.
This is a developing problem with the protests: they force players and teams to make a decision both individually and as groups. That’s extremely difficult, and unfair.
Standing for the anthem doesn’t automatically mean disrespect for protesters, just like kneeling for the anthem doesn’t automatically mean disrespect for the military. You can acknowledge and support the desire for racial equality in America and still stand for the anthem. You can acknowledge and support the brave sacrifice of veterans and still kneel.
And there are plenty of nuanced opinions along the continuum. Tomlin surely had good intentions by calling for a unified response to President Trump’s “sons of bitches” comment on Friday, but it put the team in a bad spot. An individual choice should not be shoehorned into a team decision.
“I’ve made coach [Mike] Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and that is my fault only,” Villanueva said Monday. “I’ve made my teammates look bad and that is my fault and my fault only, and I made the Steelers look bad and that is my fault and my fault only.”
It’s honorable because he is honorable. He regretted the appearance that he was more patriotic than his coach or his team. But if people feel that way, that’s their problem and their short-sightedness.
The easy thing is to blame Colin Kaepernick for all this. He started the recent protest movement in the NFL. Right away after he sat during the anthem last August there was confusion about what he meant. Anti-flag? Anti-military? Anti-police or just anti-police brutality? Anti-America?
But Kaepernick laid out his reasons fairly clearly in the days after. And he didn’t urge anyone else to do the same. This was his personal choice, his freedom of expression, and joiners were welcome.
Still, interpretations were piled onto him. A desire for racial justice and police accountability was either overshadowed, or twisted, or ignored, or all of the above. The culmination came late last week when the president levered the protests into a national litmus test.
Standing or kneeling is not a litmus test. It’s a personal choice, with personal meaning. The fact that so many people ascribe their own meaning to another person’s expression is a sign of a deeper problem in America. We talk and don’t listen.
Part of what’s at play here is the fascinating push-pull of football culture. The sport revels in its next-man-up zeitgeist: no man is bigger than the team. You can’t go into any high school football locker room without seeing some message urging the sacrifice of the individual for the betterment of the team. This is a big part of what makes football great, and what makes America great. We pull together when challenged, when it’s time to make a stand. That might be at the heart of Tomlin’s directive. That might be what Villanueva supposedly “butchered.”
But this misses something equally American: we can do both. We can be individuals with strong opinions and a group with strong ties. We can take a knee alone and then fight as part of a team. We can even take a knee as a group and then stand as one, which is what the Dallas Cowboys did Monday night.
Colin Kaepernick did the right thing for him and had the respect of his teammates. Alejandro Villanueva did the right thing for him and had the respect of his teammates. But Villanueva had to make a sheepish statement and, far worse, Kaepernick lost his job. The latter outcome looks worse by the day, as now we have billionaire owners doing pregame demonstrations. How will it look to history when we have a quarterback getting banished for starting a movement that led to an entire league’s response to divisiveness?
“People who are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military, they’re not saying anything negative about the flag,” Villanueva said. “They’re just trying to protest the fact that there’s some injustices in America. And for people to stand up for the national anthem it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in these racial injustices, they’re just trying to do the right thing.”
The president doesn’t seem to accept this. But the rest of us can.
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