Villanueva's unconvincing apology and other blunders from the Steelers
From Alejandro Villanueva's absurd apology for standing up for the flag to his team's decision to stay off the field during the playing of the National Anthem, the Pittsburgh Steelers have done an amazing job of extending a bad press cycle for themselves. And maybe that's because they are prioritizing protection of their flag-haters over the interest of pleasing their fans.
First, there was the locker-room evasion. In the name of "team unity" and a stated desire not to get involved in the politically charged atmosphere of President Trump's objections to players "taking a knee" as the National Anthem was played, the Steelers as a team opted to stay in the locker room, or tunnel Sunday, as the anthem was played. They called it being "respectful" of the team, presumably because of its political differences.
Moving the protest off the field entirely was a way to keep solidarity without isolating an individual.
"That's where the confusion came in," the source of the anthem sequence said.
The respect claim seems considerably weakened after news emerged that the team's coach, Mike Tomlin, rather adamantly said he expected "100 percent participation" in the locker room huddle. That came off as the statement of an organization man – protecting the organization, never mind the individuals, against the wrath of the fans.
And in any case, they didn't get it when Alejandro Villanueva made his lonely stand on the field, standing at attention as the National Anthem was being played.
Villanueva drew a lot of attention for his stance, including criticism for not being a good teammate. But the real question revolves back to the locker room huddle. What was the team trying to hide from its fans? That they have different political opinions? That they don't want to hand President Trump a victory or defeat? Or that a lot of them are millionaires and aren't willing to show respect for the flag or the fans who love it? Because there would be no need for hiding if every player just came out, sang the National Anthem, and got to the business of playing football as has always been done without remark up until now.
Trying to hide the matter only drew attention to it. How many of those Steelers harbor disrespect for the American flag? Why don't they want their fans to know about it? Are they afraid that alienating their fans by showing it openly will cut into ticket sales? In a patriotic and blue-collar city like Pittsburgh, having a problem with the flag is going to get some attention.
Then there was the backtracking on his field stand by Villanueva himself. It was as unconvincing as the team's effort to hide from controversy. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:
Alejandro Villanueva said he never intended to stand alone during the national anthem on Sunday and apologized to his teammates and coach Mike Tomlin for what he called "a very embarrassing" botching of the team's pregame plan.
"Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed," Villanueva said.
"We butchered our plan."
Continually, Villanueva apologized to the rest of the team.
"I made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only," he said. "I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only.
One can only imagine that in light of head coach Tomlin's other remarks that Villanueva probably heard from him.
After all, Tomlin has the power to cut Villanueva from the team any time he wants. Villanueva himself had a rough road getting into the National Football League, as his biography shows, overcoming many disappointments of not being chosen before finally make it into professional football. He's also on record as stating he's one of the cheaper (implied: less powerful) players in the league, making only half a million a year or so.
So he was hardly a guy who could stand up to not being seen as a team player, given the displeasure from his coach. And of course, his statements, especially Monday, suggest he wants to be a team player. So the bottom line is that he would have been easy to frog-march up there to giving the press conference to disavow his actions.
But it rings hollow, because he also made many earlier statements declaring his patriotism; his love of country; his recognition that his military mates were watching; and his disagreement with those who, like Colin Kaepernick, take a knee.
Villanueva has previously spoken out about former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to sit and kneel during the national anthem, saying his actions may "send the wrong message."
"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 in 2016.
Villanueva said he was all in for defending the interests of his team, and of course, he has to work with these guys. But he was disavowing his magnificent act that came off as something done on principle. (And drove fans to buy his jersey.) Should that be done in the name of not being thrown off the team – in the interest of protecting those who don't want to salute the flag? It's a sorry picture that will only serve to extend the speculation and keep the spotlight on the Steelers, which is the one way out there to draw unwanted attention from fans. Pittsburgh fans don't mind if the Steelers lose a game, they will still remain loyal. But disrespecting the flag is another matter, and the falling NFL attendance records signal trouble on the horizon. The fans act if a team can't get it right, and out front, on that issue.