Much of the non-COVID-19 discussion around the pending NFL season is focused on how the league and its players will approach social justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
More specifically, who will protest, how will they protest and how will the league respond after years of discouraging protests? Not much has been discussed about who won’t protest.
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt took that issue head-on Monday. He made it clear on Twitter that he will not be kneeling during the national anthem, citing the opportunities presented to his immigrant grandmother in the United States.
‘Screw anybody who have a problem’
Tuitt, 27, is a six-year NFL veteran who has been a fixture in the Steelers’ starting lineup for five seasons. He took his stance from a position of leadership in the Steelers locker room — a stance that doesn’t appear to align with that of another leader on Pittsburgh’s defensive line.
Cam Heyward preached united Steelers front
Fellow defensive end Cam Heyward, a nine-year veteran with the Steelers and a team captain, said in June that if players protest this season, they will do so with a united front.
“I think we want to stay united in what we do and what we want to accomplish,” Heyward told reporters in June. “Coach has always told me if we win the Super Bowl, that’s not enough in the city of Pittsburgh.
“We want to leave lasting change among the community as well. For us, we’re going to have those opportunities to branch out and be individuals and affect our community.”
If some Pittsburgh players intend to protest, they’ll do so without Tuitt.
2017 anthem incident looms over Steelers
The Steelers are cognizant of the appearance of being divided after a 2017 incident that saw left tackle and Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva take the field by himself for the national anthem while his teammates remained in the locker room at the height of the NFL’s protest controversy.
The Steelers had agreed as a group to not take the field, and Villanueva made headlines when he stood alone outside the tunnel with his hand over his heart during the anthem. Villanueva later expressed regret over the incident and said that he did not intend to throw his “teammates under the bus.”
“Unfortunately I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally,” Villanueva said. “We as a team tried to figure it out, obviously we butchered it, I’m not gonna pretend I have some kind of righteous voice. ...
“I will support all my teammates, and all my teammates and all my coaches have always supported me.”
United front not a realistic goal
As much as Heyward wants the Steelers to present a united front in a league that covets team over individual, it’s not a reasonable stance to take on a team with 53 players.
The issues addressed by social justice and police brutality protests are deeply personal and deeply emotional. Asking a locker room of 53 men to reach a consensus on such an individual subject for the sake of presenting a united football front isn’t realistic.
Tuitt has made clear where he stands. It doesn’t seem likely the rest of his teammates are willing to forfeit their desire to protest just because Tuitt doesn’t agree with them.
And that’s OK. Not every player has to fall in line on social issues for the sake of team unity.
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