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National anthem flap challenged Steelers fans to separate belief from fact

Ben Schmitt
| Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, 12:54 a.m.
The Steelers team stands behind Alejandro Villanueva in the tunnel during the national anthem before their loss to the Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers team stands behind Alejandro Villanueva in the tunnel during the national anthem before their loss to the Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media during his weekly news conference Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media during his weekly news conference Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Vi Doughton was convinced without doubt: In her mind, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin criticized left tackle and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, 29, for stepping out of the stadium tunnel in Chicago without his teammates during the national anthem.

She called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's office to complain. She planned to stop watching her beloved football team.

She called the Tribune-Review to express her displeasure.

“He disrespected Villanueva after the game in his press conference,” said Doughton, 83, of Peters. “He condemned our hero.”

When asked for a source of information about Tomlin's actions, she replied: “It's all over the internet.”

Was Tomlin critical of the war hero-turned-football player? Didn't matter. The narrative that the Steelers had purposely disrespected the national anthem had begun.

Tomlin, 45, later explained that the team's goal was to avoid the kneeling-player protests surrounding the anthem, but many fans still viewed the actions as unpatriotic. Fans posted videos throughout the week on YouTube of themselves burning Steelers apparel, proclaiming they would never again watch a game.

There are extensive pieces of academic literature showing that, as humans, many times we believe what we want to believe despite the facts, confining ourselves to echo chambers of like-minded Facebook feeds or news channels.

Experts sometimes refer to the tendency for people to recoil and hold on to their beliefs, despite evidence to the contrary, as the “backfire effect.”

Repeating the myth reinforces it.

“There's a good chance many people in certain situations haven't spent much time seeking out contrary opinions,” said Gordon Mitchell, associate professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh. “That takes effort. When like-minded others talk to each other more and more, views get more extreme.”

Here are Tomlin's exact words regarding Villanueva and the anthem situation on Sept. 24 after the Steelers lost to the Bears, 23-17.

“Like I said, I was looking for 100 percent participation,” he said. “... If those of us as individuals choose to participate in politics in some way, I'm going to be supportive of that. But when we come out of locker rooms, we come out of locker rooms to play football games. And to be quite honest with you, I didn't appreciate our football team being drug into politics this weekend.”

Over the next two days, Villanueva, who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, and Tomlin publicly expressed respect and admiration for each other.

“We respect Al. We respect the things that have gone on with him. He asked if he could get toward the front so he could see and partake in the anthem, and I said, sure,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “Somehow that was perceived as division, and it's a shame to put Al in that position because, man, he is a team guy.”

Villanueva, who usually shies away from speaking to the media, stepped forward as well.

“For anybody who thinks Coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America, I'm offended by that,” he said.

His statements touched off another social media narrative that the Steelers forced him into apologizing and defending Tomlin.

Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist who has worked in the United States, England and Australia, has spent years delving into the concept of misinformation and false beliefs.

In one paper published in the Association for Psychological Science, he examined the perceived link between childhood vaccines and autism, the Obama birther movement and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on the belief that it possessed weapons of mass destruction.

“Although no WMDs were ever found in Iraq ... large segments of the U.S. public continued to believe the administration's earlier claims, with some 20 to 30 percent of Americans believing that WMDs had actually been discovered in Iraq years after the invasion,” the Lewandowsky study said.

“Very few people are sitting back and evaluating the evidence,” Mitchell said. “When more people start challenging the narrative, others might even think there is a conspiracy.”

But it's not impossible to change someone's mind with facts, Mitchell said.

The key is finding common ground on related topics and easing into the controversial issue without political or ideological baggage, he said. For example, in the Villanueva situation, one could begin by agreeing that he is a hero and a great American before raising the anthem issue.

“Assuming it is impossible to change the minds of people one disagrees with is a dangerous, widespread perception,” Mitchell said. “It's assuming the other person is incapable of critical thinking.”

Two days after receiving a call from Doughton, the Trib called her back to see if her perceptions regarding the Steelers had changed. Some had, she said, because of conversations with her husband, Lew.

“My initial reaction was that Tomlin condemned Villanueva,” she said. “I'm no longer convinced of that after reading his comments again and talking with my husband.”

She also softened her stance that the Steelers had disrespected the anthem.

“I was very angry and emotional initially,” Doughton said. “I was hurt. But, people burning Steelers jackets? That seems a little premature to me. With the way everything was happening, I think Coach Tomlin was trying to make it right in his own way. I don't think it was handled well, but I think he is a good man.”

She didn't budge on her belief that Villanueva was forced to apologize for breaking ranks with his teammates.

“He was pressured to say that,” Doughton said. “I'm not sure the pressure came from Tomlin, but it came from someone.”

Still, considering everything, she said she would watch Sunday's game after all.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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