PITTSBURGH — Because Arthur Moats didn't take the field for this past Sunday's national anthem ceremonies, in keeping with the Pittsburgh Steelers' carefully scripted pregame plan, the fans who booed at Chicago's Soldier Field or burned their Steelers jerseys back in Pennsylvania might have assumed that he and his absent teammates didn't respect the American flag.
They didn’t know that Moats’s father was a Marine, his grandfather served in Vietnam, an uncle and cousin were in the Air Force and another cousin is in the Army. Nor did they realize that love of country and respect for discipline were so ingrained in Moats’s military upbringing in Portsmouth, Va., that even now, at 29, the veteran linebacker folds his clothes just so, tucks the corners of his bedsheets so tight he can flip a quarter off them and addresses others with “ma’am” and “sir.”
The details of Moats’s biography — along with those of his teammates and rivals — have gotten lost amid a week-long firestorm fueled by a White House-driven narrative that casts the NFL’s roughly 1,800 players as either patriots or, as President Trump put it, sons of bitches, with no in-between. And the way to tell the difference, the narrative holds, is by the posture each adopts during the NFL’s pregame ceremonies, which has become a litmus test in which players are praised or damned based on whether they stand for the national anthem, sit, kneel or skip the proceedings altogether.
For the majority of NFL players, Moats included, this isn’t a test they signed up for. It’s one that Trump foisted upon them by demanding on Sept. 22 that any player who kneels during the anthem, as former quarterback Colin Kaepernick silently did 13 months ago to highlight issues of police brutality and racial injustice, be fired.
Sunday at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, the Steelers intend to take part in the anthem ceremonies as a team. And Moats will do as he was instructed since childhood.
“I’ll stand out of respect,” said Moats, a James Madison graduate who recently earned his master’s degree in community and economic development. “I’m not against kneeling either. I understand why you take a knee — to put a spotlight on a problem. What I’d like to do is fix the problem. That’s why I don’t feel like I need to publicly display a protest, even though I may agree with the issue.”
Across the NFL, players are wrestling with how to handle pregame ceremonies, mindful that however much they would like to keep the realms of sports and politics from colliding, it is out of their control. Whether fair or not, whatever posture they take will be interpreted as having meaning.
The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears set the tone for Week 4 of the NFL schedule on Thursday night by standing with their arms linked on their respective sidelines. That appears to be the template other NFL teams will follow.
“As much as some people want us to just shut up and play football and keep the politics to politics, sports and politics have always intersected,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after Thursday’s game. “If we can help continue a conversation through a demonstration of unity like tonight, I think that’s a good thing.”
In New Orleans, quarterback Drew Brees attempted to get ahead of any game-day controversy by alerting fans via social media on Friday that in an effort “to show respect to all,” the Saints would kneel in solidarity before Sunday’s national anthem and stand together during it. The Jacksonville Jaguars announced Saturday evening on Twitter that they would do the same. That’s the compromise the Dallas Cowboys struck, joined by their owner Jerry Jones, on Monday night.
‘In uncharted territory’
Although Trump casts players’ participation in anthem ceremonies as a good-or-evil proposition, the underlying issues tug at players themselves in complex, often contradictory ways. And at the moment, there are at least four issues in play, depending whom you ask: Racial injustice; freedom of expression; the right to push back against a profane, personal attack; and the question of whether an NFL sideline anthem ceremony is a proper occasion for addressing any of the above.
“At this point I feel like the message has definitely gotten misconstrued and kind of lost,” said Washington Redskins defensive back DeAngelo Hall, who stood on the FedEx Field sideline before kickoff this past Sunday night, arms linked with those of teammates beside him, in a show of solidarity. “The message isn’t a shot at the flag or a shot at the armed services and people who protect this country. The shot is at social injustice in general. Everybody is trying to band together and say we’re all entitled to our own opinion.”
The message at the heart of the controversy, in Hall’s view, is the one that prompted Kaepernick to take a knee in August 2016: Racial injustice.
“It’s definitely a hot-button topic, and you don’t want to get it wrong because there are so many people watching,” Hall said. “But at the same time, because so many people are watching, you do want to acknowledge that [racial injustice] exists and is here . . .
“It’s a fine line when it comes to what’s right, what’s wrong. Nobody really knows. We’re kind of in uncharted territory. Nobody really knows the right way or the wrong way.”
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s misgivings kept him awake after the Steelers chose to remain in the tunnel leading to the field for this past weekend’s anthem ceremonies. It was the squad’s only option after Coach Mike Tomlin instructed players that whatever they did, they had to do in unison, and the squad couldn’t agree to stand or kneel as one.
The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans also chose to not participate in this past Sunday’s anthem ceremonies for the same reason; it was the only way to present a united front among players with differing views.
The next morning, Roethlisberger voiced his regret in a letter he posted on his website, writing in part, “I wish we approached it differently. We did not want to appear divided on the sideline with some standing and some kneeling or sitting.” He added that the Steelers would be on the sideline for future games.
‘Trying to do the right thing’
Football, at its basic level, is a game of blocking and tackling, but NFL locker rooms are strikingly diverse and complex subcultures. The Steelers’ roster, for example, ranges in age from 20 to 39. It includes players from Big Ten powers, historically black schools and small, faith-based schools; men of different ethnicities and faiths, reared amid affluence and the inner city; first-round picks and overachievers snubbed by the NFL draft; hipsters, hunters and family men — all led by a coach from William & Mary.
Their differences fall away at kickoff yet, in tough times, serve as a powerful bonding agent in a blended family of 53.
“You want to play harder for a person that you love, that you have a personal relationship with,” Moats explained. “When I understand your background, and you understand my background, now we can relate to each other. You know what I’m willing to do for you; I know what you’re willing to do for me.”
Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs knew the importance of locker room unity when controversy twice threatened a divide, during the NFL players’ strikes of 1982 and 1987. As Redskins executives started signing replacement players in anticipation of the 1987 walkout, Gibbs gathered his squad.
Recalled former center Jeff Bostic: “He said, ‘Guys, you have to do what you think is right, but we’re going to fill the team, and I don’t need any outside distractions. I need to concentrate on taking the people given to me and winning as many games as I can until you come back. Whatever you do, stay together.’ ”
The 1987 Redskins did just that, picketing the team’s facility each morning and holding their own workouts at George Mason to stay sharp. By the time the strike ended in mid-October, the Redskins were the only NFL team that didn’t have a player cross the picket line. They regrouped and went on to win that season’s Super Bowl.
“Football is about brotherhood,” Bostic said. “You’re going to battle side-by-side with one another, so you have to have the back of the guy next you, and he has to have yours.”
That was Tomlin’s thinking in insisting that his Steelers have 100 percent participation in whatever sideline statement they chose to make during this past Sunday’s anthem ceremony.
That said, the issue that now galvanizes many NFL players — racial injustice — is more divisive than the topic that triggered the player strikes three decades ago. Virtually every NFL player supported free agency and higher pay in the 1980s, while not all players share the same awareness of racial inequity, much less how best to address it.
“Unless you are from where I’m from or have the same color skin or grew up the way I grew up, you’re not going to understand where I’m coming from,” said Hall, 33, a Chesapeake, Va., native. “That’s just the pure facts of it.
“My wife is half white, so her side of the family kind of sees it one way, and obviously my side of the family sees it another way. But we all still love each other. We all still hang out, eat together. So I think that’s really the goal. The goal isn’t to make a guy feel uncomfortable for kneeling during the national anthem if that’s something he feels passionate about. It’s to show solidarity in saying, ‘Hey, we’re together because we all are under the NFL shield.’ ”
If consensus isn’t possible, Redskins tight end Vernon Davis hopes that NFL players’ sideline gestures raise awareness of the centuries-old inequity in fundamental rights. He would consider a frank conversation about the topic, in which people are “fast to listen, slow to speak,” as he puts it, a step forward.
“I’ve always stood for the flag,” said Davis, 33, who in August was honored with the Redskins’ 2016 Salute Award for his record of supporting U.S. service members and their families. “I have flags in my house, outside my house. This isn’t about the flag. It’s about helping solve a problem where we have people screaming for help.”
But on this topic and on this playing field, intent and messaging can be as difficult to interpret from the NFL stands as what constitutes a catch.
As Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villaneuva learned this past Sunday, a few yards’ difference can make all the difference.
A U.S. Military Academy graduate who earned a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, the 6-9, 320-pound Villaneuva had asked the Steelers captains for permission to join them at the front of the tunnel before this past Sunday’s kickoff so he could watch the anthem ceremonies and take part in a private manner without publicly breaking ranks with his teammates. It was granted. But Villaneuva stepped just beyond the tunnel’s opening without realizing his team captains had been stopped by security guards behind him, leaving him the lone Steeler in view of TV cameras, singing the anthem, his hand over his heart, as he does every game day.
It was immediately interpreted as an act of dissension, and many fans hailed Villaneuva as a hero for defying the Steelers. With his No. 78 jerseys selling at unprecedented pace, Villaneuva spent much of the following day addressing what he characterized as his unwilling mistake. He detailed the moral dilemma he felt, the texts he had received from wounded veterans saying they expected to see him on the sideline, the care he took to get in position at the tunnel’s opening for the ceremony and his embarrassment upon realizing that he had stepped out too far and couldn’t retreat without looking as if he were walking out on the anthem.
“I never planned to boycott the plan that the Steelers came up with; I just thought there would be some middle ground where I can stand in the tunnel, nobody could see me,” Villaneuva said. He voiced remorse over unintentionally making his coach, teammates and the Steelers organization look bad in many fans’ eyes.
He was then asked how he would feel if some of his Steelers teammates chose to take a knee in subsequent anthem ceremonies.
“I take no offense; I don’t think veterans at the end of the day take any offense,” Villaneuva said. “They actually signed up and fought so someone can take a knee and protest peacefully whatever it is that their heart’s desire . . .
“What people don’t understand is that people who are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military. They’re not saying anything negative about the flag. They’re just trying to protest the fact that there are injustices in America. And people who stand for the national anthem — it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in these racial injustices. They’re just trying to do the right thing.”