Despite the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to not take the field for the national anthem during their Sunday game, a single player struck out on his own – and quickly became one of the names at the center of the controversy surrounding the #TakeAKnee movement that’s sweeping the NFL.
Alejandro Villanueva – starting left tackle for the Steelers – stood alone outside the tunnel entrance to Soldier Field in Chicago during the national anthem on Sunday, with his hand over his heart.
The rest of the Pennsylvania-based team remained further back in the tunnel, out of view – a decision head coach Mike Tomlin announced ahead of the game. Tomlin told CBS Sports, “We’re not participating in the anthem today, not to be disrespectful to the anthem – to remove ourselves from this circumstance.”
“People shouldn’t have to choose. 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.”
Villanueva, 29, signed a 4-year, $24 million deal with the Steelers in July, though he first became a starter for the team back in 2015. Before going pro, however, the Mississippi-born player was an Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan. The West Point graduate earned a Bronze Star medal during his service.
It was actually Villanueva who was key in the team’s decision to remain off the field during Sunday’s anthem, reported ESPN.
According to ESPN, players wanted to accommodate Villanueva’s desire to not be singled out for standing during the anthem, and opted to stay off the field to show solidarity. Villanueva’s final move was met with confusion by some of the other players.
James Harrison told PennLive.com. “We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously. But I guess we weren’t.”
Coach Tomlin similarly expressed frustration with Villanueva’s decision, saying during a post-game press conference, “Like I said, I was looking for 100 percent participation.”
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The movement was initially sparked by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in August 2016 when he took a knee during the anthem. Explaining the move at the time, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Previously asked about Kaepernick’s silent act of protest, Villanueva told the Washington Post in August, “I absolutely think he was very brave for what he did.”
“I don’t necessarily agree with the fact he kneeled down for the national anthem,” he said. “I also don’t understand every single circumstance going on in his life. I do it because of all the veterans, all the soldiers I served with. I wore that flag when I was overseas and doing missions. If I ever looked to my left or my right, I’d see an American flag. That’s the reason why I [stand].”
Numerous players and teams across the NFL joined in the #TakeAKnee movement this past weekend because of recent remarks made by President Donald Trump – first at a rally speech in Alabama, and later on social media.
Trump stated, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out, you’re fired.’ ”
He followed with a series of tweets. “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect…our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” he wrote. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”