Villanueva shows backlash over NFL anthem protests

Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva became a counterprotest symbol. (credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Beall via Flickr Wikimedia Commons) Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva became a counterprotest symbol. (credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Beall via Flickr Wikimedia Commons)

Alejandro Villanueva is many things to the people of Pittsburgh: starting left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a part-time graduate student at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, and most recently, the focal point of a media storm launched on Friday night by President Trump. Prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers game last Sunday, head coach Mike Tomlin released a statement confirming that he and his players would remain in the locker room during the anthem after the National Football League (NFL) released a statement of unity and support. When it came time to start the anthem, the Steelers dutifully began to exit the field — save for Villanueva. He was photographed standing at the front of the tunnel to the locker rooms, the only Steeler participating in the anthem.

NFL players kneeling during the anthem is comparatively old news, as Colin Kaepernick began kneeling at the start of the 2016 season to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Various other players participated, but the focus remained on Kaepernick. Now out of the league, Kaepernick’s protests and motivations have fallen behind the words of Trump, NFL owners, and sports reporters nationwide.

Within hours, Villanueva became a symbol against the protests, which were performed in some form at every single Sunday game. The Army veteran’s jersey swiftly became the highest selling jersey in the NFL. Yet in an interview after the game, Villanueva claimed he was following his teammates when he got stuck behind other personnel on the field. Although his plan was to remain hidden in the tunnel, he found himself still on the field as the anthem began, and chose to remain. Later, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was quoted that he regretted the team’s decision to remain in the locker room.

On a weekend where the NFL tried to push unity, the tension between Steelers teammates reflects the tension now brought between fans of the NFL. The protests were never about unity at the beginning, or the flag, or disrespecting the military. They were, and always have been, focused on the real issues of racism in the United States. After the Steelers game, a fire chief in Washington County, PA leveled a racial slur at Tomlin on Facebook, and people were reportedly covering Steelers flags in swastikas. In the span of a weekend, professional football dramatically reflected the state of race relations in America right in the faces of the general public. Outcries of keeping politics out of sports persist, as if including the anthem in and of itself is not a political statement. But sports fans were not prepared to face the harsh reality that came to light. By exercising their first amendment right to free speech, the black athletes kneeling for the anthem were defamed in the media by the President of the United States.

And yet the original focus has been lost. Postgame interviews speak of protesting the anthem or protesting the flag, ignoring Kaepernick’s original statements when the protests first began. The NFL, similarly, cushioned themselves in stating that any actions during the anthem would be in solidarity and unity, as if they were not protests at all.

Surely it was not the Steelers’ intention to reflect centuries of turmoil in the few minutes it takes to sing the national anthem. And yet, as the displays continue into the newest weekend of football, it does not seem that any of this is going to stop quietly. The President inserted himself into sports, and now sports are responding. Like it or not, the NFL can no longer be depoliticized, but even as it strives to be a singular league, it does not look like it will ever truly be united either.