The great NFL debate of 2017 presents two false, yet polarizing, choices: You can either be for the millionaire players who blatantly refuse to stand up for our national anthem—or for a president with a dubious record on race relations who benefits from inflaming this culture war.
Luckily, for common sense Americans who believe that police brutality is a serious problem, but who also have a reverence for the flag, a savior has risen from the proverbial NFL ashes: a Pittsburgh Steelers player named Alejandro Villanueva.
On Sunday night, Villanueva (a former U.S. Army Ranger, who was awarded the Bronze Star and did three tours in Afghanistan) was the only player to defy Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s wishes and come out on the field during the national anthem. He stood alone by the tunnel with his hand over his heart.
Villanueva later regretted making his coach and his teammates look bad. He said he somehow got out in front of his teammates unintentionally and was “embarrassed to a degree” by the way things went down, even though he plans to continue standing for the anthem.
As an NFL player, a veteran who honorably served our military, and a minority (he is of Spanish descent), Villanueva has unimpeachable credibility on this issue. Neither Donald Trump nor Colin Kaepernick (nor yours truly, for that matter) can appreciate all sides of this discussion the way that he can. Perhaps that’s why he has expressed his position in the most charitable and defensible way. And maybe that’s why his jersey is now the NFL’s number one seller.
“There’s bad cops everywhere,” he told the Washington Post last month. “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.”
Regarding the decision by Kaepernick and others to kneel during the national anthem, Villanueva appreciates the goal, if not the means: “I agree that America’s not perfect,” he conceded last month. “But I don't know if the most effective way is to sit down during the national anthem with a country that's providing you freedom, providing you $16 million a year ... when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for less than $20,000 a year.”
Villanueva acknowledges America’s failings, but rather than obsessing on the negatives, he’s proud of his home. “I recognize that I have to be very thankful to be in this country,” he said back in August. He compares living in the United States to winning the lottery, and says: “I’ve experienced true racism that happens in Europe with a lot of minorities …It’s very difficult for me to be here in America, as grateful as I am, and the best country in the world, and have people not be pleased about it.”
Let’s hit pause on this controversy for a second. How many rich NFL players have this same solemn reverence for America? How many players realize that, although we have some serious problems, this country is still the greatest, freest nation on the face of the earth? So many of them are happy to take our ticket money on Sundays, but their protests over an admittedly serious problem aren’t coupled with a sense of appreciation and respect for the sacrifices others have made so that we can live in this free and prosperous nation.
However, Villanueva didn’t stop there: “We have a system that allows people to [protest]. So we have to respect it and we have to understand that people are trying to express their voice as well.”
Unlike Donald Trump, Villanueva seeks to understand both sides. His rhetoric is that of a peacemaker—of a uniter. Donald Trump, conversely, is a divider. He exacerbated this culture war (only nine players knelt before Trump’s comments) by calling these players SOBs.
Villanueva is a patriot who loves America, who believes this is “the best country in the world,” and who fully understands that “there’s a lot of issues with minorities in this country and [that] we should do something about it.”
The tragic truth about America is that we are a nation where the Colin Kaepernicks and Donald Trumps get all the attention. But the vast majority of us are in between. We see these issues as nuanced. And even if we are passionate about our point of view, we can concede that the other guy might have a different perspective.
Alejandro Villanueva isn’t just the hero America wants right now. He’s the hero we need.