PITTSBURGH — His players unable to reach agreement on how to respond to President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL players who protest during the national anthem should be fired, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin signed off on their decision to remain in the tunnel before kickoff last weekend in Chicago.
The Steelers, in their words, were attempting to find middle ground. Turns out, there might not be any. And if Tomlin is being honest, he’s no longer interested in the search.
"You’re asking us about middle ground, you’re asking us about right or left," Tomlin said Tuesday . "We’re a football group. That’s what you guys don’t understand.
"We don’t care, largely, professionally speaking. We have personal opinions yes. Professionally, we’re about to kick a ball off."
And Tomlin would prefer to get back to doing his job, a concept complicated by the fallout from the visual of 52 of his 53 players remaining in the tunnel while the anthem played at Soldier Field as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva — a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger — stood alone with his hand over his heart on the fringe of the field as "The Star-Spangled Banner" blared.
Villanueva apologized on Monday for what he called the team’s "butchered" plan to have him remain at the front of the line but still out of sight.
While longtime fans took to social media or inundated the team’s headquarters with phone calls and emails in anger, the franchise tried to find a way to clearly explain its stance it stresses wasn’t really a stance at all.
Villanueva, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive end Cam Heyward went to great lengths on Monday to point out the team was not disrespecting the anthem by not participating but simply trying to extricate from the dilemma entirely.
Team president Art Rooney II released an open letter to fans on Tuesday to clear up what he called a "misperception" of the club’s actions.
"The intentions of Steelers players were to stay out of the business of making political statements by not taking the field," Rooney wrote. "Unfortunately that was interpreted as a boycott of the anthem, which was never our players’ intentions."
Tomlin pointed out the team has had "100 per cent participation" during the anthem since the movement of some form of silent protest began with former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick last summer.
That threatened to change, however, following a speech by Trump last week in which he called for owners to deal with a protesting player by getting "that son of a bitch off the field right now."
"The statements made last week, that put potentially some of those attitudes we’ve been proud about (at risk)," Tomlin said.
When asked which statements specifically, Tomlin added "the SOBs statement. The statements that seemingly goad certain athletes into demonstrating."
During a lengthy team meeting on Saturday night, several players expressed an interest in protesting in some fashion but no consensus could be reached so the Steelers tried to extricate themselves from the situation entirely.
"Things are happening around them that apply pressure to them," Tomlin said. "Whether they feel like they’re being goaded and that’s your perception or there’s another perception that those that oppose some of (Trump’s) statements are applying pressure on players to demonstrate.
"I’m opposed to both factions to be quite honest with you. I’m an advocate for players. I’m an advocate for those that simply want to do their jobs."
The Steelers plan to be on the field during the next Sunday when they play in Baltimore, though they’re not sure whether they’ll simply stand at attention or engage in some form of united expression of unity.
"It’s not that we’re not socially conscious, not that we’re not community conscious," Tomlin said. "We just don’t believe in demonstrations. We believe in impact. So we give ourselves and free time in that area, Tuesdays (normally) being that day, not moments before kickoff."
Roethlisberger and linebacker Arthur Moats hinted the emotions surrounding Trump’s remarks and the ensuing internal discussion about how to handle the anthem may have played a role in Pittsburgh’s 23-17 overtime loss to the Bears. Tomlin acknowledged the noise is difficult to drown out but added it’s hardly an excuse.
"Hopefully we learn something from this week’s past experiences in terms of being able to be singularly focused in the midst of a potential storm that’s outside of our control," he said. "Was it a distraction? I’m sure it was in a lot of ways but we still got a job to do and hopefully we learn from it."
Tomlin was on the sideline during the anthem, away from his players, something he said he did to get comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.
The Steelers plan to be next to him this weekend. Whatever the players may do, Tomlin doesn’t really care so long as they do it together.
"We have nothing to hide," Tomlin said. "We’re just a group trying to play football and people are using us in these circumstances for their benefit and we resist it."