Cowboys, Cardinals link arms amid NFL anthem protests; Trump keeps up war of wordsBy KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG
September 25. 2017 11:50PM
PHOENIX — Two National Football League teams on Monday largely steered clear of a controversy over national anthem protests that have ensnared President Donald Trump and threatened to damage the game’s popularity, staging a pre-game “moment of unity” instead.
The entire Dallas Cowboys team, including owner Jerry Jones, linked arms and knelt on the playing field for a moment before the game, but then stood respectfully as the “Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by singer Jordin Sparks.
Jones has previously expressed pride that no players on his team had taken to one knee as the anthem was played and said he was disappointed to see such protests.
The Cowboys opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, joined arms as a giant flag was unfurled on the field, but did not kneel.
“Prior to the National Anthem, the @DallasCowboys and @AZCardinals shared a moment of unity on the field,” the NFL said in a Twitter post that was retweeted by the Cowboys.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stirred a polarizing national debate in 2016 after refusing to stand during pre-game renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner” to protest police violence against African-Americans.
Kaepernick was not signed by an NFL team this season but several players have made similar gestures.
Trump kicked off his battle with the largest-grossing U.S. professional sports league at a rally on Friday, when he said any protesting player was a “son of a bitch” who should be “fired.”
Those remarks touched off protests by dozens of NFL players, coaches and even some owners at games on Sunday, along with criticism from many corners of the sports world.
“The childishness, the gratuitous fear-mongering and race baiting has become so consistent that we almost expect it, the bar has been lowered so far,” Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, told reporters.
The head of the U.S. Olympic Committee spoke out in support of the protesters at NFL games.
“The athletes you see protesting are protesting because they love their country,” USOC Chief Executive Scott Blackmun told reporters in Park City, Utah. “We fully support that our athletes and everybody else to express themselves.”
The International Olympic Committee’s charter prohibits “demonstrations of political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic venues.
Steelers’ Villanueva ‘embarrassed,’ apologizes for mix-up with teammates’ protest
Not all players joined in Sunday’s protests. Notably, Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a U.S. Army Ranger who was deployed in Afghanistan, stood alone at the entrance to the stadium for the anthem on Sunday while his teammates waited in the locker room.
Villanueva jerseys and other apparel have outsold those of all other players in the past 24 hours, said a spokesman for online retailer Fanatics, which operates NFLShop.com.
Villanueva told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he never intended to stand alone during the national anthem on Sunday and apologized to his teammates and coach Mike Tomlin for what he called “a very embarrassing” botching of the team’s pregame plan.
“Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed,” Villanueva said.
“We butchered our plan.”
Villanueva said he asked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the team’s leaders to amend their original idea, agreed upon after a Saturday night team meeting, which was to stand in the locker room during the anthem in an attempted show of unity. Part of the reason Villanueva pushed for change: he’d received texts from wounded veterans asking him to stand for the anthem.
Villanueva’s suggestion, he said, was to stand with Roethlisberger and the team’s other captains at the front of the tunnel. That didn’t work out due to, as Roethlisberger said, pregame “chaos” in a small area, and Villanueva was left to stand alone with his teammates about 20 feet behind him.
“The crazy thing about that is, when we came out of the tunnel, we told Al to come stand up front with the captains. Cam, myself and (Tyler Matakevich),” Roethlisberger said.
“When we came out of the locker room into that tunnel, it was a very small area. There was a flag or something coming off the field so there were a bunch of Bears fans, coming off the field holding that (and) going in front of us, so it kind of held us up.”
The end result was Villanueva, hand on his heart and mouthing the words to the song, standing apart from his teammates. It was widely perceived, with sound enough logic, that he’d gone rogue.
Villanueva took sole responsibility for the mix-up and said that “very few players” knew that he’d planned to head to the tunnel because he went directly to the captains with his idea.
“How would you feel if you were somebody who really wants to go out there and stand for the national anthem, and you didn’t know that there was a player that was going to stand in the tunnel from a (better) vantage point? I would be really (mad),” he said.
“They’re getting negative feedback because they didn’t stand up for the national anthem when in reality, they would’ve done it. They were fighting to stand up for the national anthem.”
He also made a point to say that he did not take offense to players who have chosen to take a knee during the anthem in protest of “injustices and racial divide,” including former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt for the anthem in protest of police brutality and racial injustice last season.
“I take no offense,” Villanueva said. “I don’t think veterans at the end of the day take any offense. They actually signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully whatever it is that their hearts desire.”
Continually, Villanueva apologized to the rest of the team.
“I made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only,” he said. “I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only.
“When everybody sees an image of me standing by myself, everybody thinks that the team and Steelers are not behind me, and that’s absolutely wrong. It’s quite the opposite. Actually, the entire team would’ve been out there with me, even the ones that wanted to take a knee.”
Roethlisberger on Monday said he regretted having missed the anthem.
“I was unable to sleep last night,” Roethlisberger said in a statement. “I personally don’t believe the Anthem is ever the time to make any type of protest.”
Trump kept up his verbal battle with the players on Monday, saying on Twitter that his objection to the protests had nothing to do with race but was “about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
The president, who has called for a boycott of NFL games, also tweeted: “Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country.”
The demonstrations have become a thorny issue for the league, which has sought to support players’ rights to protest while trying to keep politics from overshadowing the games.
CBS Corp said overall viewership of games it broadcast on Sunday was up 4 percent from last year and 1 percent from last week. NBC, owned by Comcast Corp, said viewership for its Sunday night game was down compared with the prior week.
“The protest has nothing to do with respecting the flag. I agree with their message but not doing it during the anthem,” U.S. Air Force veteran Jimmy Phillips, 43, said before the Monday game in Phoenix.
Nike Inc said it supported athletes who had joined the protests.
“Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society,” the athletic wear maker said in a statement.
The debate attracted intense attention online, with the hashtag “#TakeAKnee” racking up 2.4 million mentions and “#TakeTheKnee” used 1.2 million times by Monday, while “#BoycottNFL” had 101,500 mentions.
Prominent players continued to speak out against Trump on Monday.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has said he considers Trump a friend, on Monday said he disagreed with Trump’s remarks.
“I thought it was just divisive,” Brady told Boston’s WEEI radio.
At the same time as he berated the NFL, Trump praised car-racing league NASCAR, which saw no protests at its Sunday race in New Hampshire.
Material from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was used in this report.