clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steelers News: While trying to avoid a political statement, the Steelers walked right into one

The Pittsburgh Steelers thought they were doing the right thing, but after “butchered” statement they find themselves at the core of a political firestorm.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If you’re capable—and I know not everyone can do that when talking about the NFL’s national anthem decisions this past weekend—just take a step back and look at the decision the Pittsburgh Steelers made before their Week-3 game against the Chicago Bears.

They wanted to do something, but wanted to do it together. Instead of some players being singled out for kneeling or sitting during the anthem, they removed themselves from the scene all together.

Forget about Alejandro Villanueva standing outside the tunnel for a second, and think about the team’s initial intent. To avoid being marred in a political storm, and just trying to focus on football. Nonetheless, despite their best efforts, the team’s actions, or lack thereof, now find themselves in the eye of a political storm.

And Mike Tomlin and company now have a new distraction on their hands at the worst possible time — Ravens Week.

Time to get to the Steelers news outside the walls of BTSC:

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin defended his decision to stand on the sideline for the national anthem Sunday in Chicago while most of his players remained inside a tunnel leading to Soldier Field.

“When I step into a stadium, I don't play politics,” Tomlin said Tuesday as he explained his role in the national anthem controversy that has engulfed the Steelers since Sunday.

“I'm there to play football. I won't be goaded into doing anything. I won't be pressured into doing anything.”

Tomlin told his team prior to a players-only meeting on Saturday night that they should show solidarity in their handling of the anthem in the wake of President Donald Trump's criticism of NFL players who kneel for the anthem.

But when the anthem was played on Sunday, and the entire team minus left tackle Alejandro Villanueva was sequestered inside the tunnel, Tomlin and offensive assistants Todd Haley, Mike Munchak and James Saxon were standing on the visiting sideline at midfield.

“There are a lot of things that go on with me prior to a ball being kicked off,” Tomlin said of his pregame routine. “I have to do communication checks. I've got to check my headsets. I've got to find 25-second clock and JumboTron information when I'm in unfamiliar environments.

“I was going to be unmoved by that.”

Tomlin said he gave his assistant coaches the option to stand with the players in the tunnel or join him on the field.

“There's no cookie-cutter answer to these things,” Tomlin said. “We were simply trying to deal with the circumstances and deal with it as fluidly as we could and go play a football game.”

Tomlin said he did not inform his players he would be on the field during the anthem.

“My intentions were irrelevant,” Tomlin said. “I wanted to make sure those guys were solid and undivided in divisive times.”

Did the Steelers' national anthem strategy on Sunday provide a distraction for players which contributed to a 23-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears?

Linebacker Arthur Moats thinks that was the case. Answering a question on 93.7 FM Tuesday regarding the team's inability to stop the run, Moats raised the national anthem issue.

“We truly lacked the focus we needed,” Moats said. “We spent a lot of time from Saturday to Sunday morning to even today discussing the anthem issue and how we were going to handle it.

“I think guys lacked a little focus when it came to playing in the game.”

Immediately after the game, defensive captain Cam Heyward and veteran cornerback Joe Haden were among players who said they didn't think the team's decision to remain in the tunnel during the national anthem was a distraction.

The Steelers, however, gave up 220 rushing yards to the Bears after allowing 148 combined over the first two games. The offense also had its lowest points and yardage totals of the season.

Coach Mike Tomlin didn't dismiss the “potential” that the anthem issue distracted the team, but he said they must rise above such obstacles in the future.

“Distractions are a part of it,” Tomlin said. “If we're as good as we desire to be, it comes with the territory. If you're a team on a Super Bowl run, January and February is anything but normal. I always embrace the distractions that come with the journey because it prepares you for the journey if you’re good.

“Good teams deal with distractions. There’s a certain amount of fanfare that comes with being good. We embrace the distractions that come along with it. Hopefully, the lessons we learn as we go on our journey prepare us to be good. Hopefully, we learn something from this past week's experiences that allow us to be singularly focused in the midst of a potential storm that’s out of our control.”

On Friday night, President Donald Trump sent out a tweet warning Kim Jong-un that he might not be “around much longer,” and referred to him as “Little Rocket Man.”

On Saturday morning, Trump sent out a tweet calling for the NFL to “fire or suspend” players who don't stand for the national anthem.

As of Monday afternoon, the tweet about the NFL had a total of 61,000 more comments, likes and retweets.

To be clear, the President of the United States of America openly threatening and mocking a maniacal dictator who’s itching to launch a nuclear missile was only the second biggest story of the weekend.

OK, the Steelers’ run defense was really bad, too. So maybe the third biggest.

But that's where we are.

That's how big of a story this NFL protest thing really is. More people are reacting to Trump bashing the NFL than they are about something he said which, in pre-social-media times, might have been enough to reignite the Cold War.

Sorry Supreme Leader, you're playing second-fiddle to Colin Kaepernick.

Is that a sad commentary on how much emphasis we put on sports compared to international relations?


But it's also a commentary on how immune we’ve become to Trump for his political tweets as opposed to his “hot sports takes.”

So did the President simply Twitter-troll the entire NFL to curry favor with his supporters ... and win? Was he just begging for a reaction ... and got one?

It seems that way.

I get why the players reacted with loud voices and increased protests. After all, it was they who Trump pejoratively referred to as “S.O.B's” in the speech in Alabama on Friday night.

And because the players likely were going to react, I also understand why commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners responded as openly and staunchly as they did.

In some cases, the responses were given formally through press releases, while at other times there were overt expressions such as linking arms with their players on the sidelines.

“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” Goodell said.

So, there you have it. Donald Trump. The Great Uniter. Who knew?

But for all that went right in that regard, did volleying back and forth with the president backfire on the owners and Goodell?

More precisely, did that also happen to Art Rooney II and his Steelers?

Chicago fans derisively were chanting “USA, USA!” at the Steelers’ bench after the Bears scored their first touchdown on Sunday.

It was like the Black-and-gold somehow had morphed into the Russian hockey team allowing a goal at Lake Placid.

Some people have started calling the team the “Kneel-ers” and have taken to burning Steelers jerseys or threatening to return season tickets.

Could this have been avoided if owners and the league office had allowed Trump's bluster to roll off their backs like so many of us did with, well, his threats of a nuclear winter?


But these are NFL owners we’re talking about here. This is Roger Goodell. This is a league and a commissioner that have often acted as if they were bigger than the office of the White House itself in recent years.

No one of Trump's stature is going to tell men of their stature what to do without a lot of chests being puffed out...