The Pittsburgh Steelers may have hoped to avoid controversy while waiting in the tunnel during the playing of the national anthem Sunday in Chicago, but the decision to stay off the field itself was viewed as a sign of disrespect for the flag. Now, some angry fans have turned their backs on the black and gold. It goes to show how raw emotions are around the issue of race in America — and how sad it is to let professional football become a battleground in this conflict.
The National Football League, its brand already slipping because of an epidemic of traumatic brain injury among professional and amateur football players, has a crisis on its hands. The Steelers’ example may have been highly publicized, with only lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, visible during the anthem, hand over his heart as he stood at the entrance of the tunnel. But variations on the theme occurred league-wide Sunday.
How sad. Sports is a great unifying force. Now it’s become one more source of divisiveness?
The NFL and its team need to respect their fans, most of whom stand for the anthem and expect the players to do so, too. The anthem tells the story of American resilience, a resilience still in demand today as the nation struggles with various problems ... including race relations. Standing for the anthem does not make one party to a conspiracy to paper over the nation’s flaws.
But sitting it out is widely considered to be defiant. At the very least, it is bad manners for players to go out of their way to show disrespect for something so many other people hold dear. Those who kneel during the anthem are making a statement that is open to misinterpretation — what some see as using a spotlight to call out racial injustice, others see as dishonoring the nation’s military.
Last season, Colin Kaepernick launched the controversy by first sitting and later kneeling during the anthem when he was a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers — something he did to draw attention to social injustice and the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police
Other players on various teams have continued taking the knee, however, prompting President Donald Trump to suggest during a rally Friday in Alabama, in his usual colorful language, that NFL teams fire players who refuse to stand for the anthem. He should not have stirred the pot.
Unable to reach a consensus on what to do during the anthem at Sunday’s game against the Bears in Chicago, or how to respond to Mr. Trump’s comments and the ensuing Twitter storm, the Steelers decided to wait in the tunnel until the singing ended. They may have hoped to stay out of the controversy in this way.
Coach Mike Tomlin said he went along with the players’ collective decision. It turns out to have been a bad call.
What will happen around the NFL this coming Sunday and how will the league respond to it? The NFL official operations manual calls for players to stand on the sideline respectfully as the anthem is played. The NFL should enforce its own policy if it wants fans to respect calls on the field, too.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 25