I’m kind of ambivalent on this whole NFL anthem protests debacle. I feel pretty strongly that the issue of unaccountable state-sanctioned violence on unarmed citizens must be corrected, but I’m unsure of why the national anthem was made the target of protest. But for the purposes of this article, this is neither here nor there.
The subject at hand, is the treatment of Steelers Offensive Tackle Alejandro Villanueva by the Steeler’s leadership, particularly Head Coach Mike Tomlin. Like many other teams, the Steelers had planned to make a statement of “unity” by having the team be absent for the national anthem. The plan fell apart though, when cameras caught Villanueva outside the tunnel, away from his teammates to salute the flag for the national anthem. There’s been some confusion as to why exactly he was off on his own, but I think this quote probably explains it:
“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.”
The aftermath itself was just as strange as the incident itself. Villanueva became an overnight sensation, with both sides of the fence trying to claim him as “their” own. Head Coach Mike Tomlin, became palpably irritated at Villanueva for ruining the “100%” team participation that was planned. Ben Rothlisberger expressed regret and stated the Steelers were done with anthem protests. And then, to cap it off, Villanueva himself felt compelled to apologize for his actions.
Of course, it’s understandable that Villanueva would feel some sort of embarrassment. He’s certainly not the type to crave any time in the spotlight, especially for a political battle he doesn’t want to be a part of. But we’ve got to come back to the Mike Tomlin scolding from earlier. Villanueva was placed in an incredibly difficult position by his coach, and rather than trying to understand why a veteran might be a little apprehensive about being absent for the national anthem, decided to become publicly irritated about it and complain about team “unity” being spoiled. Villanueva didn’t throw anyone under the bus, but Mike Tomlin certainly threw him under one. You could argue he threw his team under the bus, insisting that team go with this ham-handed plan to sit out the anthem together as some ill-conceived show of “team unity”. The result – a decorated army vet felt ashamed for doing something that’s probably ingrained into his very being. That’s really fucked up.
At the very least, he did acknowledge that Villanueva had nothing to apologize for. But that’s not good enough. This was a failure of leadership that did wrong to someone who did not deserve it. Mike Tomlin needs to apologize to Alejandro Villanueva.