Every NFL game Sunday was marked by player demonstrations during the national anthem, but only three teams took the extra step of not appearing at all on the sideline for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Steelers were one of those squads, and on Monday, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Alejandro Villanueva expressed regret over how that unfolded, although for notably different reasons.
Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ longtime star quarterback, said he wished his team had “approached it differently,” and he hoped his squad would “stand united” on the sideline before future games. Villanueva, an offensive lineman whose name many learned Sunday, when he stood alone at the front of the tunnel leading to the field, said he felt “embarrassed” for showing up the other Pittsburgh players.
“Unfortunately I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally,” Villanueva said at a news conference (via CBS Pittsburgh). “Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed.”
As Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin explained before the game, which took place at the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field, his players didn’t want to appear at odds over how to pose during the anthem, whether it be standing separately with hands over hearts, standing with arms linked (as several NFL teams did Sunday) or all kneeling, possibly with arms linked. They thus decided to remain in the tunnel during the anthem as a show of unity.
“People shouldn’t have to choose,” Tomlin said. “If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t have to 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. So we’re not participating today. That’s our decision. We’re going to be 100 percent. We came here to play a football game.”
Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, told reporters Monday that it was an unfortunate accident that he wound up very visibly alone. He asked to be near the front of the team, with the captains, to get a good look at the flag but strayed too far out amid a lot of coming and going in the cramped tunnel.
When the anthem started, Villanueva realized he was more or less in no man’s land, neither on the sideline nor in the tunnel with his team, and he took pains Monday to laud his fellow Steelers. “For anybody who thinks Coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America, I’m offended by that,” Villanueva said. “I made Coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only.”
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger said Monday he “was unable to sleep last night” and wanted to share his “thoughts and feelings on our team’s decision to remain in the tunnel for the national anthem yesterday.” In a lengthy statement posted to his personal website, he said, “The idea was to be unified as a team when so much attention is paid to things dividing our country, but I wish we approached it differently. We did not want to appear divided on the sideline with some standing and some kneeling or sitting.
“As a team, it was not a protest of the flag or the anthem. I personally don’t believe the anthem is ever the time to make any type of protest. For me, and many others on my team and around the league, it is a tribute to those who commit to serve and protect our country, current and past, especially the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I appreciate the unique diversity in my team and throughout the league and completely support the call for social change and the pursuit of true equality,” Roethlisberger continued. “Moving forward, I hope standing for the anthem shows solidarity as a nation, that we stand united in respect for the people on the front lines protecting our freedom and keeping us safe. God bless those men and women.”
Some observers hailed what they thought was Villanueva’s deliberate intention to appear for the anthem, and sales of his jersey skyrocketed overnight. For the 24-hour period from the start of the Steelers-Bears game to midday Monday, more Villanueva merchandise was ordered at the NFL’s online shop than that of any other player (via ESPN).
His actions confused other Pittsburgh players, who thought they had arrived at a team-wide decision. “We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously,” linebacker James Harrison told PennLive on Monday, before Villanueva spoke. “But I guess we weren’t.”
One of Villanueva’s fellow offensive linemen on the Steelers, David DeCastro, said his teammate’s status as a military veteran mitigated any possible resentment over his apparent decision to stand alone. “Al is a unique circumstance, what he’s been through, some of the things he’s talked about before,” DeCastro said (via ESPN).
“I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault, and my fault only,” Villanueva said. “We as a team tried to figure it out but obviously butchered it.”
“People that are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military; they’re not saying anything negative about the flag,” he added. “They’re just trying to protest that there are some injustices in America.”
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