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Before the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Chicago Bears on Sunday, a game the Steelers would ultimately lose, head coach Mike Tomlin told CBS Sports’ Jamie Erdahl that all of the players would be staying in the locker room during the national anthem, saying at the time, “for us, as a football team, it’s about us remaining solid. We’re not going to be divided by anything said by anyone … But whatever we do, we’re going to do it 100 percent; we’re going to do it together.”
He went on to say that it was not out of disrespect to the anthem.
The Steelers have a player on their team, offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who is a West Point graduate and served as an Army Ranger, doing three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
When the anthem began at Soldier Field, Tomlin was the only representative of the Steelers on the field.
But Villanueva had left the locker room ahead of his teammates, and stood just outside the Steelers’ tunnel where cameras could see him, his gloved hand on his heart as the anthem played. The rest of the Pittsburgh players and coaches were behind him, in the shadows under the covering over the tunnel.
It’s understandable that Villanueva would feel compelled to take part in the anthem ceremony given his life in the military (he also appeared in a commercial for armed services financial institution USAA last year), though he was not required to be present as a rule of his service.
After the game, Tomlin was clearly miffed, and that’s understandable too: football coaches and players preach about football being the ultimate team sport; while there are of course differences between players, whether it be religious or upbringing or even political leanings, what’s best for the team is always at the forefront.
Villanueva didn’t follow that tenet on Sunday, undercutting his coach and his teammates. Had another played stepped out front on his own to kneel just outside the tunnel, he would have been excoriated for leaving the pack and acting on his own.
Tomlin was asked about the decision for most of the team to remain off the field, and he said it wasn’t his decision.
“Like most teams in the National Football League, we didn’t ask for this, this was placed upon us by circumstance,” Tomlin said. “I heard rumblings of guys talking during the course of the day yesterday, my contention was that we will not allow politics to divide us, we’re a football players, we’re a football team. Many of them felt like something needed to be done, I asked those guys to discuss it, and whatever they discussed, that we have 100 percent participation or we do nothing.
“They discussed it for an appropriate length of time, they couldn’t come to an understanding, so they chose to remove themselves from it. They were not going to be disrespectful of the anthem, so they chose not to participate, but at the same time, many of them were not going to accept the words of the president. So, we decided to sit it out, to not take the field, to remove ourselves from it, to focus on playing football, those were our intentions.”
Asked about Villanueva’s actions, Tomlin jumped in before the question was done.
“Like I said, I was looking for 100 percent participation. We’re going to be respectful of our football team. Man, these are divisive times in the United States and it’s a shame, but it is. But we’re not politicians, we’re coaches and pro athletes and if those of us who are individuals choose to, you know, 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.
“To be quite honest with you, I didn’t appreciate our football team being [dragged] into politics this weekend and I’m sure that that’s a global perspective. But we’re blessed to do this for a living, with that blessing comes responsibility, we understand that. We understand we’re given a platform that’s a unique one, many of us are called to do things we wouldn’t normally do because of that platform, where people apply pressure for us to do things because of that platform and the bottom line is we chose not to play ball today in that regard. maybe we will, but today we just said no.”
Tomlin said he called Commissioner Roger Goodell on Sunday morning to inform him of the team’s plan; the Titans and Seahawks also did not take to the field until after the anthem on Sunday.
Though Pittsburgh lost to Chicago, Tomlin said he did not think his team’s performance had been negatively impacted.
“I think it minimized it as a distraction for us. The big thing is that we remain united,” he said. “This game of football is a unique one; we’re all blessed to be part of it. We all get tolerances from people that are different because of our association with ball. We feel bad for people that aren’t involved in football that don’t get an opportunity to have a brother that’s very different from them, that’s next to them that he has to rely on so you gain understanding.
“We will not be divided by this. We have men in there that come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, creeds, ethnicities, religion and so forth. That’s football, that’s a lot of team sports. But because out our position we get [dragged[ into [expletive], to be quite honest with you. So some have opinions, some don’t. We wanted to protect those that don’t, we wanted to protect those that do. We wanted to come here and play a football game today, and that was our intention.”
Unlike former Green Beret and, briefly, Seattle long snapper Nate Boyer, who met with Colin Kaepernick last year despite not agreeing with Kaepernick’s decision to protest injustice and inequality during the national anthem (Boyer convinced Kaepernick to kneel rather than sit on the bench), Villanueva took a harder stance.
“I agree that America is not perfect, I agree there are lot of issues with minorities in this country, I agree we should do something about it,” Villanueva said in 2016. “But I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down when the national anthem of the country that is providing you freedom and providing you $60 million a year is the best way to do it when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and protecting our freedom for less than $20,000 a year.”
Kaepernick and other players who have kneeled during the anthem have repeatedly said their intention is not to show disrespect to military members, and many have family members who have served.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• NFL star makes a joke, gets absurd penalty from refs
• 97-year-old WWII vet takes a knee for NFL players
• Pat Forde: Why haven’t we seen anthem protests in college football?