On Sunday, Sept. 24, all of the Pittsburgh Steelers except for one man, Alejandro Villanueva, refused to either stand or leave the tunnel during the pre-game national anthem. Many other players across the NFL did the same as the Steelers.
To understand the significance of this form of protest, we must first understand the significance of the National Anthem itself.
Written by Francis Scott Key, the Star Spangled Banner was written aboard a British detainment ship in 1814 after witnessing the United States survival of the shelling of Fort McHenry, indicated by the American flag still waving atop the fort the next morning. The United States national anthem is a representation of the survival, determination, and unification of the American people.
Having been deployed in Afghanistan and part of a minority himself, Villanueva’s actions indicated that he saw the disconnect between the intended message and the actual message of protesting. He was compelled to honor the flag and the anthem.
The first NFL player to protest the national anthem was former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick in 2016. Kaepernick began this protest in reaction to what he described as unfair treatment of Black Americans by police.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” Kaepernick said in a Washington Post interview.
There is clearly a major issue within our nation around racial oppression and segregation, an issue that has existed since the country’s inception. There are other injustices, too. We have a long history of divide between men and women and their rights, and that’s just one example. Even with all of our flaws, we all belong under the same flag. Though it is a constitutional right to be able to protest, why, when the national anthem is representative of a unified dream, one that men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of, lived, and died for, do people feel the need to further the distance between Americans by visibly rejecting that sign of persistence and unification?
Though Kaepernick had only the best of intentions, he did not go about expressing his ideals in an effective way. Rather than calling positive attention to an issue, he started what is now further division in our nation around a whole separate issue. Today, NFL players have a new reason for protesting: Trump. The original message has been lost in a reaction to Trump’s tweets.
“To have the president trying to intimidate people — I wanted to send a message that I don’t condone that. I’m not OK with somebody trying to prevent someone from standing up for what they think is important,” said Julius Thomas of the Miami Dolphins when responding to Trump’s Twitter attacks.
Thomas was one of the many professional football players throughout the nation who protested the national anthem this past weekend.
Villanueva’s jersey sales spiked within 24 hours, indicating the support among football fans for his respect and reverence towards the anthem. It’s people like Villanueva who are uniting our divided nation, resisting a hateful president, and representing what the people who founded our country stood for. Frankly, we need more people like him.