Last Sunday morning, when I read the news that the Pittsburgh Steelers players would stay in the locker room/tunnel during the playing of the national anthem moments before their Week-3 matchup against the Bears, I figured it would get kind of ugly as far as the fans were concerned.
But it wasn't until I began scrolling through social media while watching Pittsburgh's rather dreadful performance in a 23-17 overtime loss at Soldier Field that I realized just how ugly it would get.
Here we are, days after the Steelers’ decision to avoid taking the field for the anthem--a move that came one day after President Donald Trump stood before an auditorium of his supporters and screamed that any NFL player who knelt for the national anthem out of protest should be fired and, oh yeah, was an s.o.b.--and things couldn't be uglier.
Since Sunday, many fans have vowed to never watch the Steelers again, and have posted videos of themselves burning team memorabilia; a local fire chief has resigned after taking to Facebook to call head coach Mike Tomlin a no good N-word; another local man painted a swastika over the Steelers flag he had hanging in front of his home. I have personally been contacted via email by a retired veteran who sent me a copy of a letter he sent to the Steelers organization informing the Rooney Family that he was turning in his Terrible Towel for good.
Unfortunately, in trying to stay out of the political fray that began in 2016, when former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans, by staying in the tunnel on Sunday, the Steelers now find themselves at the very epicenter due to the unrest of fans who have branded all but left tackle and decorated Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva cowards for disrespecting the American Flag and the military and the United States of America (Villanueva was shown standing out in the open with hand on heart during the anthem, while his teammates were behind him in the tunnel).
Again, many have vowed to never follow the team again, but why?
Since when is it a football player's job to feel one way or another about the military and the country? Where does it say he's supposed to stand at attention and show reverence for war heroes and his own freedom?
Doesn't the fact that he's an American citizen afford him the right to choose what he does during the national anthem?
What's so ironic about this is that fans love to tell professional athletes to keep their social issues away from sports because the games are fans' opportunity to escape from the realities of everyday life.
OK fine, but how dare they then turn things around and push their love for the military and country down the throats of those very same players who simply just want to go out on the field and play a game?
And, while they might tell you it's not political, believe me, the love for the military and the country was politicized by one side of the political spectrum a long time ago and unofficially adopted as part of its platform, and that's clearly in-play here with all of this outrage.
If you're reading this and are someone who has decided to turn in his or her fandom for life, is it really worth it? And why does it bother you so much when a professional athlete decides to peacefully protest during the national anthem? Does it affect your ability to watch the game?
You're an American with a freedom to choose, and so is that player who’s peacefully protesting. While the flag may mean one thing to you, it could mean something entirely different to that player, based on where he came from and what he or his family/friends have had to go through.
So, you're offended by the protest (or in the Steelers case, their attempt to stay out of the protest by staying in the tunnel), so what? To quote the great Dick Cavett, what does it even mean to be offended? Is that like a real thing?
Just because you object to someone's actions doesn't necessarily make those actions wrong; it just means that maybe you need to get over yourself and move forward.
I managed in retail for 13 years, and I would often hear things like, "You can't do that, the old people are going to complain!" One day, after hearing that for the umpteenth time, I momentarily snapped and said, "Damn it, old people aren't the only ones who shop here!"
So, because a certain segment of the Steelers’ fan base has inaccurately assigned meaning to these weekly national anthem protests, these players should just know their place and stand at attention? What about the fans who have been—or know someone who has been—victimized by police brutality? Don't their dollars and support count just as much as the flag-wavers who are offended?
Anyway, like those players who take a knee to silently protest during the national anthem, you’re certainly free to choose to be offended and never to watch the Steelers again.
But, if you're of the diehard variety, I find it hard to believe you'll be able to walk away so easily. Because while choice comes into play when you first decide to follow a sports team, once you’ve become emotionally invested, then choice goes out the window.
It kind of reminds me of the often-recycled sitcom joke, where the husband threatens withholding sexual favors from his wife, and the audience laughs wildly, because the idea of a man not wanting sex is mostly hilarious.
In other words, it's one thing to posture; it's quite another to follow through with actions.
Controversial Pittsburgh sports radio host Mark Madden posed an interesting question on Tuesday: What has made a bigger impact on your life: The military/country, or the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Obviously, if you're a combat veteran or war hero, that’s an easy question to answer (thank you for your service, by the way). But if you're just an everyday American citizen, I'd love to know the answer.
For me, the answer is easy and that's the Pittsburgh Steelers, an NFL football team that has been the biggest influence in my life since the age of 7.
I don't know how differently my life would have turned out without the Steelers, but I do know I wouldn't trade any of the memories I've accumulated over the past 37 years.
I find it hard to believe you’d trade in your memories (along with your Terrible Towel) either.
But, you know what? It seems every few years or so, a segment of the fan base finds a reason to get in my face and tell me it won't be watching the Steelers any longer. First it was Ben Roethlisberger and his sexual assault allegations. After that, it was CTE. Two years ago, the signing of Mike Vick caused many fans to burn their stuff and turn in their tickets.
I used to get defensive about it but, really, why should I even care?
If you want to walk away from a team that has meant so much to you, go right ahead. I realize you think you're making a huge difference, and in the short-term you actually might.
But the Steelers have been around forever and, despite the recent decline in ratings, they and the NFL will be front-and-center in a sporting sense for a long time.
In fact, there are young children who likely will grow up to be passionate football fans and will one day learn about these player protests. And much like me when I first read about the "black power" protests of the 1968 Olympic Games, they'll probably think, "Hmmm, 2017 was a politically and racially-charged time in America," but it won't affect their love of the NFL one single bit.
Finally, while you might think you're hurting the Steelers by distancing yourself from them, if you're truly a diehard fan, you're only hurting yourself.
Get over it, and support the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They'll always be there, and you should be too.