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Some say national anthem furor may actually unite us

| Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
The Steelers team stands behind Alejandro Villanueva in the tunnel during the national anthem before the Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at Soldier Field in Chicago, IIl.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers team stands behind Alejandro Villanueva in the tunnel during the national anthem before the Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at Soldier Field in Chicago, IIl.
In this file photo from September 2016, San Francisco players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before a game  in Charlotte, N.C.
Getty Images
In this file photo from September 2016, San Francisco players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before a game in Charlotte, N.C.

The furor stirred by NFL players choosing to protest during the national anthem — exacerbated by President Trump's ensuing vitriol and barrage of social media attacks — has put all types of people at odds this past week in stadiums, sports bars and living rooms across America.

But perhaps there's potential amid the contention: Maybe the conversation has gotten so divisive that it could actually unite us.

That's what Henry Mallory, a 64-year-old recreational leader at West End Senior Center in Pittsburgh, pondered Wednesday afternoon while overseeing a weekly game of bingo.

“In a way, Trump's divisiveness is actually kind of bringing the country together, whether he wants it or not,” said Mallory, a former social services worker who earned degrees in communication and Africana studies at University of Pittsburgh before pursuing graduate work at Geneva College.

“It's coming together and realizing we're all in one community, and everybody wants the best for your children, no matter who you are. ... It's more so about humanity.”

At the least, Trump has spurred more dialogue between people with differing viewpoints and amplified national conversation around professional athletes' efforts to protest in the name of social justice.

That was the feeling of Mallory and several Western Pennsylvanians on Wednesday during an informal Trib survey across the Pittsburgh and Greensburg regions.

“There's a healing that needs to go on in this country,” said Mallory, “and as long as we stay in denial, it's just going to get worse.”

NOT ABOUT RACE?

Trump has asserted repeatedly that his opposition to the protests is not racially motivated and has everything to do with patriotism.

“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” Mr Trump tweeted on Monday. “It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”

Like the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans, the Steelers chose to stay in the stadium tunnel Sunday, with the exception of Alejandro Villanueva, who later said his action was misinterpreted. Many fans voiced displeasure over the decision and lashed out at the team, Coach Mike Tomlin and the NFL in general. Some went so far as pledging to burn their season tickets.

“I agree with Trump; I feel the Steelers disrespected our country by not stepping on the field,” said Amanda Maines, 29, of Saltsburg. “I think the Steelers were out to get Trump, and I think that's immature. I think our country is more important than that.”

Ben Tweedie, 28, an Army veteran from Pittsburgh's Bloomfield neighborhood, said he's personally insulted by people who say the players are disrespecting veterans and deny the racial problems that spurred the protests in the first place.

“It's absolutely about race,” said Tweedie, who served seven years and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That's where it started, and that's where it should stay.”

The kneeling movement, which started with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, began as a protest against police brutality and racial inequality. Several players have said while kneeling during the anthem they were praying for America and eradicating injustices confronting blacks and other minorities.

“A lot of people don't want to really address it, period, but it has to be addressed,” Mallory said. “It starts with sitting down with one person expressing their views and the other person expressing their views. This is a conversation that has been long, long overdue.”

Two local incidents this week have intensified discussions linking the controversy to race: Cecil's volunteer fire chief, Paul Smith, resigned Wednesday after directing racial slurs at Tomlin on social media; and a West Deer man painted a swastika over his Steelers flag at home.

F. David Roth, 56, an actor visiting from Chicago to put on a play at Seton Hill University, said Trump's heated remarks seem to empower people with racist views to “speak from very dark places.”

“Maybe, just maybe, when they see the reaction of their neighbors, they'll either, A: crawl back under their rocks, or B: start to think for themselves, and start to change what their opinions might be.”

NOT ON MY WATCH

Several people said they respected efforts to push for social justice — so long as it's off the field.

“Sports and politics, I think they should be separate,” said Isaac Adamiak, 24, an insurance broker in Pittsburgh's North Side. “We watch football games because we want to get away from all that stuff; we don't want to get drawn into it, it's kind of like a safe place and I can just chill. ... And they just brought it in and kind of violated all that.”

Adamiak added, “This is a country that allows you to have your job and speak out how you want to do it and lets you make a billion dollars playing a football sport game, so that you can kneel? No, don't pull that. Be respectful, because that flag represents what's allowing you to do this.”

Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, agreed that there were good reasons to protest but argued the anthem wasn't the right time or place.

“Everyone's got the right to protest, but in my view, when the flag is raised and the anthem is playing, you ought to pay attention to that,” Anderson said. “I grew up in the sixties, during the marches, the (Vietnam) war, the Civil Rights Era ... People have popped out the other side stronger.”

Mallory, who is black, said that “it would be OK if we were receiving the same social treatment that the national anthem is standing for.” He pointed to ongoing challenges over inequity permeating education, criminal justice, job opportunities and housing, as well as persisting segregation in places like greater Pittsburgh — where one-third of blacks live in poverty compared to 15 percent of whites and schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1950s.

Even those with mixed views over the to-kneel-or-not-to-kneel debate said they respected players' rights to free speech and all wanted what's best for America and all of its people.

“Off the field, I think they should do everything in their power,” Adamiak said. “I think they have a really big platform to speak as a celebrity. They should stand up for what believe, but the NFL is a sport.”

FOOTBALL GOES ON

Maines said she'll probably still watch the Steelers, if only because her husband will. She felt the National Anthem was “sacred” but agreed that there were legitimate issues with racism and police brutality that former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was protesting when he started sitting or kneeling during the anthem last season.

“I just think there's too much hate in the world, I think we need to all just get along. There is too much brutality, there's too much bullying, there's too much killing, there's too many suicides,” Maines said. “I mean, everybody's filled with so much hate. And for all the wrong reasons.”

Nick Paiano, 58, of Armstrong County said he prefers to keep politics away from sports and the workplace.

“I still respect the flag, and I know what a lot of people gave up for it,” Paiano said.

He doesn't think the backlash against the Steelers will last.

“The Steelers are going to be back where they were,” he said. “This will blow over quick — especially if they win.”

Natasha Lindstrom and Matthew Santoni are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Lindstrom at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha. Reach Santoni at 724-836-6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or on Twitter @msantoni.

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