As demonstrations during the national anthem filled NFL stadiums Sunday, few players stood out like Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. The Steelers chose to remain in their locker room for the anthem. Villanueva stood just outside the tunnel, in clear view of the crowd, with his right hand over his chest. Before he reached the NFL, Villanueva served three tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger.
On a sweltering training camp day in August, I spoke to Villanueva outside the Steelers’ locker room in Latrobe, Pa., for a story on how NFL players felt about Kaepernick and why so few had spoken up in support of him. Villanueva spoke a month before Donald Trump attacked NFL players who protest racial injustice during the anthem, but his comments have new relevance today. The following is a transcript of our conversation.
Q: How do you view Colin Kaeperick not having a job?
Alejandro Villanueva: That’s the very tough question that everybody is trying to answer right now. Does he not have a job because of his qualities, or does he not have a job because something is affecting him based on what he did last year? I think as players, as Americans, everybody wants to believe that it is because of his abilities. I have no idea what a quarterback is supposed to do on the field. I haven’t looked at his tape. I don’t know the thought process behind ratings. I don’t know any of those things. It would be very unfortunate if a player was trying to voice his feelings, his opinions, in a peaceful protest, and because of that he got punished. At the same time, this is also a business. There is money involved. People are trying to make money off the NFL.
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. 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]. But I think whether you kneel for the national anthem or not has become a bigger issue and a much bigger question than the things they protested about. It’s taking away a lot of attention.
Because of that, I think everybody on this team, we’re not really having an opinion or a stand on it. We just do what’s right and try not to create any distractions or buzz about it. We’ll try to find ways to fight injustice in our free time.
Q: Does it become less of a political issue and more of a professional issue if a player said something, and might not be able to get work because of that? Does that worry or bother you?
AV: If I were to make a statement right now that would affect the amount of money the NFL makes, if I were to go to a company like Pfizer, and I voice my opinion that marijuana should be legalized because it’s a much better cure than all the other pharmaceuticals the company sells, and I am affecting the sales of Pfizer, therefore the company should have the right to terminate my contract … to impede this loss of money. I don’t know if it’s because of that. If it’s simply because of the ideological stand on violence and whatnot, then I think it’s very unfair. I think that’s the concern all the players have in the NFL. I don’t think it should be like that.
But I don’t have all the answers to all the questions. I don’t even know how he plays as a quarterback. I don’t even know what system fits him. Again, I think he was very brave for taking the chance and doing something, frankly, not a lot of people would have dared to do. I don’t know if it was effective or not. I don’t know if the fact he was kneeling down was a bigger issue, and people got focused on that and not the fact he was trying to raise awareness. In my opinion, I have an African-American coach, and 90 percent of the team is African American. So I hear these issues nonstop. I don’t have to have somebody kneel down for the national anthem. But if somebody, maybe you learn something from them, then I guess it is justified.
Q: Your background gives you an interesting perspective …
AV: I don’t think anybody has the right answer right now. You can’t make a statement and say it’s 100 percent right, regardless of what political affiliation you’re falling under. You try to make the best of the things you have in front of you. I don’t think I’m right for saying the things that I say. I just have an opinion.
Q: Do you guys talk about it a lot?
AV: Yeah. I think in every single locker room, it’s been brought up. I think I’ve learned a lot, as a non-African-American, about all their issues. I think it’s been a very interesting year. For me personally, it was more the influence of Ryan Harris, a guy who was here last year. He’s a guy who has so much passion for these issues, I learned sort of the right way. I think protests of the national anthem are more about whether you should kneel down for the national anthem or not rather than the things they’re talking about. People are always going to say, ‘Well, you should do it for the troops’ as opposed to, ‘Well, he’s doing it for something else.’
Q: Do you worry it becomes more about bickering back and forth than about why he’s doing it?
AV: Yes. That’s all it is. It becomes about his action. It doesn’t become about what he’s representing.
Q: When you talk in the locker room, what tends to be the overriding sentiment?
AV: The overriding sentiment is everybody needs to treat each other with respect. Everybody needs to listen to each other. I think everybody has to have a more calm tone when discussing these issues, and understand you can never generalize people. So that’s sort of the sentiment we have with the Steelers. You can’t generalize people. There’s bad people everywhere. There’s bad cops everywhere. There’s great cops everywhere. There’s bad people from every race. We’re all trying to live together. You just have to judge people for who they are and not really put them into a category. That’s when you make the biased errors and hurt a lot of other people’s feelings.
Q: Would you worry if people got the impression that he doesn’t have a job because of what he did, that it’s going to stifle players from voicing their opinion?
AV: That’s a great question. I don’t know how you can extrapolate his situation this year with what’s going to happen in the future with players being shy about expressing their opinions. There’s a lot of players that knelt down for the national anthem last year, and they’re not facing suspensions. They have support from their teams. Marshawn Lynch is doing that with the Raiders. His coach is supporting him, he’s going to stay with the team. It’s one of those things that is bigger than myself.
I really can’t understand the full spectrum of Colin Kaepernick, what he is as a football player and what he brings to an organization, whether he’s a much bigger distraction than what a backup quarterback should be on any given team. I’m not really sure. The whole national anthem thing, I actually don’t do it for America or whatnot. I do it because that flag that I see when the national anthem is being played is the same flag that soldiers I served with and I wear. We do it for each other when we serve in every single war that our country is ever going to be in because of the man to the left and right. Not for other reasons, not for the political ideas of one man, not for the sentiments of a political administration. Just for the guy from the left and right. I think that after this year has been settled, if somebody has a different opinion, I’m not in the business of convincing America to be more patriotic. If this is what America wants to be, let it go.
Q: It’s a personal decision?
AV: I think it’s a personal decision. I think it’s respect. But if you don’t want to be respectful toward the American flag, I don’t think there’s any law that says you have to be respectful.
Q: You mentioned it might be a distraction. Do you buy that it would be? Would it be a continuing problem for a team, or would it be three days or a circus and then back to normal?
AV: I’m not the one to judge, because I’m not the starting quarterback of that organization. If the starting quarterback felt — or even the offense, or an area of that team — instead of focusing on how prepared a team is for that season, is whether a player is doing something political that has nothing to do with football, that might distract a team and the offensive coordinator and all the momentum the team is carrying forward. But I don’t know that for sure. If he has the skill and he’s going to take that offense to the next level, then I think he should get consideration to have another job.
Q: This is admittedly hypothetical because you guys don’t need a quarterback. In a different universe, do you think he’d be welcomed in this locker room?
AV: Absolutely. Yeah.
Q: Is that across the board? I know you’re not in every locker room.
AV: Yeah. I believe so. I think everybody — we worry more about the respect of every human being, regardless of religion or political affiliation. In this locker room, we understand who we are. I’m not in the business of convincing people to change their minds. I don’t think that’s effective. But I think this team is very mature and has its priorities straight in terms of football. There’s not a lot of room for the political stuff.
Now, some notes and links from Sunday’s games.
>>> Liz Clarke and Abby Phillip have a comprehensive look at how the NFL responded Sunday to Trump. Dan Steinberg writes that FedEx Field became an unlikely oasis, and Jerry Brewer says the weekend prompted the NFL to display its diversity.
The NFL is a different league Monday than it was Friday. How exactly, we probably can’t tell for sure. But in perception and in implementation, it will not be the same. The introduction of the phrase “the liberal NFL” into some corners of the lexicon is mind-boggling. And if you don’t think that phrase is being thrown about, you have not seen the Twitter or email account of someone who wrote a front-page story on Trump and the NFL.
>>> Bill O’Brien had a chance to beat Tom Brady, and instead he blew it by giving Brady the ball. The Texans lost, 36-33, in Gillette Stadium but Deshaun Watson declared himself a viable NFL starter with a sensational performance, as Sarah Barshop writes. He deserved a stunning victory to go with his 301 passing yards and 46 rushing yards, but O’Brien’s fainthearted end-of-game choice robbed him of the chance.
With 2:28 remaining and the Texans up, 30-28, Houston faced 4th and 1 on the Patriots 18, and it was a 1 so short they had to measure. If the Texans picked up less than a yard, they would bleed the clock and New England’s final timeouts while keeping alive the chance at a game-sealing touchdown. They would essentially seal victory. They had a chance to seize an upset, to consign Brady to the bench.
Instead, O’Brien kicked the field goal. Obviously, he wanted to make the Patriots score a touchdown rather than needing to get into field goal range. That conventional thinking may be defensible against an average quarterback. But what did O’Brien think would happen when Brady got the ball at home, against a tired defense? Brady marched the Patriots 75 yards, capping his latest heroics with a 25-yard toss to Brandin Cooks — now a true Patriot, says Chad Finn — in the left-front corner of the end zone with 23 seconds left.
Coaches are far too conservative when it comes to going for it on fourth down to begin with. The decision at the end of games constitutes malpractice. Pass rushing requires more energy than pass protecting, and exhausted defenses do not play at the same level they do earlier in games. That’s especially true against Brady, a master of the no-huddle. How O’Brien, a former Brady quarterback coach, underestimated Brady is astonishing.
Yes, it seems risky to eschew a field goal that will force the Patriots to score a touchdown to win. But it’s even more risky to willfully hand the ball to Brady when you have one foot on his throat. There’s risk to both scenarios — coaches don’t seem to understand the “safe” choice carries its own risks. O’Brien chose the conventional, and wildly wrong, route. It cost him.
>>> The Giants are moving closer to the Great Quarterback Draft Derby of 2018. We could debate whether the Giants’ offensive miseries are the primary responsibility of New York’s offensive line, Coach Ben McAdoo’s rancid play-calling or Eli Manning’s past-his-prime performance. But an offense cannot be as inept as the Giants’ with adequate quarterback play. Manning is having an awful season, even after a second-half resurgence in a 27-24 loss to the Eagles, and when that happens to a 36-year-old quarterback who’s been beaten up as much as he has, it’s time to start looking for his replacement.
That may mean taking a quarterback at the top of the QB-heavy 2018 draft. The Giants fell to 0-3. Barring a sudden change with a cast characters, led by McAdoo, who seem utterly incapable of executing one, the Giants are going to be one of the worst teams in the league.
It’s not even October, but the Giants now appear to be a contestant in the NFL’s race to the bottom. It could put them in position to draft Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Josh Allen. That would constitute a stroke of luck — Manning, the first overall pick in 2004, could cede to another quarterback taken at or near the start of the first round. There’s plenty of season left, but that scenario is in play.
>>> More on the Giants: Mark Maske writes that Odell Beckham still doesn’t get it. The NFL put itself in an odd situation by allowing touchdown celebrations, but prohibiting certain kinds. Whether it deserved a flag, the peeing dog thing was just odd.
>>> Even catching passes from backup Case Keenum, Stefon Diggs is becoming an elite NFL wide receiver. In the Vikings’ 34-17 victory over Tampa Bay, Diggs caught eight passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, Diggs already has four touchdowns and 293 yards on 17 catches. In 2016, Diggs caught 84 passes for 903 yards in just 13 games, and the Maryland product has raised his level. He’s one of those receivers who always seems to be open.
“He’s a special dude,” Keenum said, per Chad Graff.
>>> The Chiefs might be really good, as Sam Mellinger writes. They’re running some of the coolest plays in the NFL with Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Travis Kelce.
>>> The Bears have a special running back tandem in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. They combined for 216 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving, with Howard dashing 19 yards for the walk-off touchdown of Chicago’s 23-17 overtime win over Pittsburgh. Howard is in his second year, Cohen is a rookie and the Bears used fifth- and fourth-round picks to acquire them, which means they’ll be cheap for another few years. Is there a duo you’d rather have going forward? Heck, right now? They’re giving the Bears an identity, Brad Biggs writes.
>>> The Bears wouldn’t have needed overtime if not for an all-time blunder from Marcus Cooper, as Rich Campbell writes. They let you celebrate in the end zone now (so as long as you don’t pretend to be a urinating dog). Just score.
>>> Josh Doctson, goodness gracious.
>>> David Remnick wrote about Trump’s comments on anthem protests. Read it.