Opinion: NFL's social justice politics misses goalposts
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.
Many media outlets published headlines along the lines of "Steelers' Alejandro Villanueva covers name of police shooting victim on helmet with name of military veteran." What might have been more introspective and meaningful is some version of "Steelers' Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran, honors fellow fallen soldier."
Maybe the headlines were rampant because so few people have a connection to a member of a military family and don't understand the significance of what losing anyone on the field of battle means to a veteran. Maybe it's because less than half of 1% of the public serves in the military.
Villanueva wasn't choosing not to honor Rose. He was instead drawing attention to another lost black life. If you truly believe that all black lives matter, then Cashe, a black man who died for his country after trying to rescue soldiers from a burning vehicle in Iraq, should be just as important and just as honored.
There are men and women in this country who find a way to do the right thing, who do not conform, who do not go along when the prevailing opinion doesn't sit right with them.
Instead, they become a voice for the voiceless.
In 2016, when Villanueva was asked for his thoughts on Kaepernick's anthem protests, his response crystallized what many people believe: "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."
The Steelers' week one game, one of two Monday Night Football games, saw another huge NFL ratings plunge. Compared with last year's first Monday Night Football game, viewership dropped a whopping 17%. The league continues its social justice experiment and has seemingly decided to bet on the next generation for its fan base, but it is finding out that that age group does not have the loyalty baby boomer or Gen X football fans once did.
The young people the league is trying to bring in are more fickle. Older fans are tired of politics infecting everything they do: Whether they agree with the sentiments or not, they just want to enjoy a game without being lectured.
What the NFL needs is a lot more people like Villanueva, not for his patriotism but for his willingness to search outside what everyone else thinks he should do.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.