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NFL's social justice experiment is no touchdown

Salena Zito on

PITTSBURGH -- In 2017, when Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva stood near the tunnel to the Pittsburgh locker room with his hand over his heart while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, the former Army Ranger was the only member of his team to do so.

Apropos of the moment, that game against the Chicago Bears was being played at Soldier Field.

Villanueva, a Bronze Star recipient, said his decision was not an intentional violation of coach Mike Tomlin's order for every team member to stay in the locker room until the anthem had concluded. It was the result of Villanueva asking the team's leaders to amend their original plan because of the texts he'd received from wounded veterans asking him to stand for the anthem.

Instead, he stood with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the team's other captains at the front of the tunnel. Chaos ensued, and Villanueva found himself standing alone, with his teammates a few yards behind him.

Within 24 hours, several things happened: Tomlin stridently voiced his displeasure; Villanueva held a press conference expressing his embarrassment for becoming the center of attention; his NFL gear briefly outsold that of every player in the league; and he gave fans alienated by national anthem protests in the NFL a reason to keep watching.

Anthem protests began in 2016, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat and later knelt during the anthem, followed by several other players on other teams. It was a significant factor in the 8% plunge in average viewership for a league that had previously been seen nationwide as a great unifier.

 

That ratings plunge continued the next year, President Donald Trump's first year in office, when the protests expanded. That time, the plunge was 9.7%.

For generations, the NFL was the glue that gave a guy sitting in his game room in East Palestine, Ohio, a deep connection with a guy in a penthouse in Manhattan because of the passion for their teams. Instead, the league became a social justice organization that was no longer holding them together.

Last week, the Steelers played their first game of the season with a social justice message on their helmets. Villanueva, who served three tours in Afghanistan, instead chose to honor a fallen veteran, Alwyn Cashe, who died during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2005.

The rest of the team honored Antwon Rose Jr. on the back of their helmets. Rose, who was black, was shot by a white police officer in June 2018. A jury that included three black jurors found the former suburban Pittsburgh police officer not guilty after deliberating for 3.5 hours.

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