NFL Kneelers vs. Alejandro Villanueva:
What Is Friendship?

By | September 28, 2017 | 3 Comments

Everyone who has not been marooned on a desert island is aware of the current controversy over National Football league players who refuse to honor the National Anthem. Instead of standing tall with their hands over their hearts, they kneel, or like Colin Kaepernick they remain seated. Even people who were utterly uninterested in football, or in any sport, have taken an interest in the controversy.

Incidentally, the controversy antedates the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Colin Kaepernick began the practice of disrespecting the anthem and the flag in a 2016 preseason game. You can’t blame Trump for that.

The underlying cause remains in dispute. Is it Black Lives Matter, with their concern over police shootings of black men? Is it racism in general? Is it indefinable dissatisfaction with life, despite multimillion-dollar salaries and public adulation? Is it childish desire not to be left out of the fun? Is it narcissistic longing to be in the spotlight when others are? Is it a combination of these factors?

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Why people disrespect our flag and our National Anthem is of no more interest to me than why someone would relieve himself on my front lawn. My only interest would be that he stop doing it, and clean up his mess.

Ironically, sports in general and football in particular are meritocracies. There is no white privilege ‒ teams and coaches are multiracial. There is no old-boy network ‒ Yale men get no preference. There is no anti-immigrant bias ‒ teams are multiethnic; Villanueva was born in Spain. There is no pay gap ‒ players become millionaires. So what, specifically, are the kneelers protesting?

And even more ironically, what flag was flown by the Union Army? What flag flew over the funerals of the one-third of a million white men and boys who died fighting to end slavery? What flag was flown by the 101st Airborne and U.S. Marshals when they desegregated Southern schools? Yes, that flag, the flag the kneelers disrespect.

Rather than attempting to psychoanalyze such disruptive behavior, I prefer to ask another question: What is the nature of true friendship? To answer this question, let us look at what happened to Alejandro Villanueva.

The 320-pound, 6’9” offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers is 29 years old. Before beginning his professional football career, he graduated from West Point. He qualified as an Army Ranger and served three tours in Afghanistan. He rose to the rank of captain and earned a Bronze Star medal for valor. If he came into the room, I would stand up in respect ‒ as well as to see him without craning my neck too painfully.

To avoid the controversy of kneeling or standing tall, the Steelers voted to remain in the stadium tunnel during singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. What the vote was we do not know, but I would bet serious money that Villanueva voted “no.” In any case, when the anthem began, Villanueva emerged from the tunnel entrance alone, and stood tall ‒ very tall ‒ with his hand over his heart.

Later, he was forced by the coach to apologize for acting alone, rather than staying with his teammates. Apparently the Steelers coach regards team solidarity as all-important. No one should be shocked that a coach feels this way. But is this the right approach? Or is there something more important?

So my question is this: What is a true friend? Is it (1) someone who goes along with you, regardless of what you do? Is it someone who acts as your personal assistant ‒ your stooge or flunky ‒ helping you do whatever you want? Or is it (2) someone who backs you up, even at risk to himself, so long as he feels you are acting correctly ‒ but who corrects you when you need it, and then won’t go along with you if you disregard his advice.

In order to answer my question, let me tell you about two friends. The first is real ‒ Alejandro Villanueva. He believed, correctly in my opinion, that he should be a type (2) friend. Having served in combat, he believed he understood quite well the meaning of loyalty and friendship. But as a graduate of West Point, he also knew that he was allowed ‒ in fact, obligated ‒ to disobey an illegal order.

Alejandro Villanueva believed that no one had the right to order him to disrespect the National Anthem or the flag, which had covered the coffins of some of his comrades. So he did what he believed a type (2) friend should do. He did what he believed was right. In so doing, he earned the respect and admiration of thousands of fans ‒ and non-fans as well. But he also earned the enmity of the coach, and perhaps some of his teammates. So he agreed to apologize for what deserved no apology.

The second friend is fictional. He is the cop played by Michael Peña in the film “End of Watch.” His best friend and partner, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, was getting married. As the wedding party was winding down, the two partners sat at a table, getting slowly drunk.

They joked. They reminisced. But unexpectedly, the Peña character suddenly became serious. He looked at his friend and said, “If you break her heart, I’ll mess you up.” Only he didn’t say “mess.” Surprised, the Gyllenhaal character could only reply, “That’s good to know.”

The Peña character was willing to risk his life for his friend and partner. In fact, in the end he actually gave his life. But he was not willing to go along with his friend if the friend did something unacceptable. That’s what I mean by a type (2) friend. I aspire to have one and to be one, though it’s not easy.

Alejandro Villanueva is a role model of a true American and a true friend. I hope he has a long and distinguished football career, and then goes on to further success in whatever he undertakes. But I also hope that never again will he have to apologize for doing what merits praise, not apology. And I intend to do whatever I can to restore America as a place where nobody has to apologize for doing what’s right.

Chris Kyle’s widow Taya says it better than I ever could.

And this is why even those without legs stand.

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  • Concerned says:

    Guess you never heard of the 1st Amendment. You know, freedom of expression. The players have every right to take a knee. Guess you never heard of democracy. The Steelers voted to stay in the tunnel. Wake up.

    • Actually, I did hear of the 1st Amendment. It forbids government censorship. The NFL is a private business. It forbade players from wearing patches to honor the murdered cops in Texas. It forbids dancing in the end zone. True, the NFL gets taxpayer money to build stadiums. But even the government has dress codes. I worked at a county hospital. We were forbidden to wear campaign buttons during elections.

      Freedom of speech doesn’t require anyone to listen. Players are free to stay in the tunnel during the National Anthem. But Villanueva is equally free to come out and stand tall. And fans are free to boo, walk out, boycott games, and turn off the TV – all of which they are doing.

      Actually, I did hear of democracy. Voting is a way to decide what is popular, not what is right. What if the Steelers had voted to raise their middle fingers during the National Anthem, or drop their pants and moon the flag. Would Villanueva have to go along with that, too?

      Actually, I am awake. When the New York Times publishes an opinion piece claiming the flag is “drenched with our blood,” and putting quotes around “our flag,” then I know there are real America-haters in positions of power – which keeps me awake at night. See

  • The coach who insisted that Villanueva apologize for honoring the National Anthem was an active fundraiser for Hillary. So who really politicized football – the kneelers, the partisan coach, or Villanueva, who merely did what he should? See

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