After skipping the national anthem, the more the Steelers talk about staying united, the more divided they look

The Star Spangled Banner has divided the country. It wasn’t supposed to divide the football team.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
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Steelers president Art Rooney II released a statement today about the national anthem, as the franchise continues to play political football by saying, over and over again, they want to focus on football, not politics. And yet in trying to stay out of the conversation, the team shares more words and offers more explanations, all in an attempt to placate angry fans on both sides of the issue.

If the Steelers want to stand for what they believe in — or kneel, whatever they choose — this constant conversation is making them look like they have something to apologize for instead. Literally, players apologized yesterday, and now the owner is doing the same by trying to explain what the team did Sunday.

“I want to reach out to you, the members of Steelers Nation,” the letter starts, “based on what I believe is a misperception about our players’ intentions in not taking the field for the National Anthem in Chicago. The intentions of the Steelers players were to stay out of the business of making political statement by not taking the field. Unfortunately, that was interpreted as a boycott of the anthem — which was never our players’ intention.”

There was a time Sunday when it felt like the Steelers had won the day. It doesn’t feel that way anymore, and it’s because the team can’t stop participating in a conversation they had actively chosen to avoid.

Sometimes it’s best to let actions speak. The Steelers keep using words.

Things started Saturday night when Rooney was asked about Donald Trump’s comment saying any player who takes a knee during the national anthem is a “son of a bitch” who should be pulled from the field and fired.

“I believe the commissioner made an appropriate statement and I have nothing to add at this time,” Rooney said Saturday night.

Sunday, the Steelers released a statement from Rooney that read, in part, “It is a difficult time in our country. I hope that eventually we will come together as a nation to respect the diverse opinions that exist and work together to make our communities better for all our citizens.”

That was better than Saturday’s ostensible “no comment,” but it failed to specifically address the President’s comments, the national anthem or the reason why some players have decided to protest in the first place. Rooney could have just tweeted a link to the 1993 Queen Latifah song U.N.I.T.Y., and it would have had more impact.

Then two hours before kickoff, Mike Tomlin spoke with Jamie Erdahl of CBS Sports to tell her, and the country, the Steelers would not be participating in the anthem.

“Whatever we do, we’re going to do 100 percent. We’re going to do together,” Tomlin told Erdahl. We’re not going to let divisive times or divisive individuals affect our agenda. This collection of men, we’re chasing something here in 2017, and we’re not going to play politics.”

And so for nearly two hours the NFL universe debated what message the Steelers were sending by opting out of the national anthem. Many (note: like myself) felt that by deciding to stay out of the political conversation, Tomlin and the Steelers were making the biggest political statement possible. Others felt the Steelers were punting on the issue, hiding in the locker room rather than facing the tough situation in the light of day.

Maybe we were all wrong. Either way, for a moment the NFL world stopped and took notice.

The visual was striking. While it’s not against the NFL rules to kneel during the anthem, it is written into the gameday procedures that teams must be on the field for the anthem. Tomlin knows this, but still oped to hold his team back, representing the franchise essentially by himself on the sideline.

Only, Tomlin wasn’t alone.

Offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva was seen walking out of the tunnel during the anthem. Villanueva’s heroism as part of the American military has been well documented during his Steelers career, so his presence during the anthem was striking, and spoke louder than an empty sideline ever could.

Since the players were unable to discuss the anthem situation before or during the game, the debate raged on throughout the contest with the Bears, with some thinking Villanueva went against his teammates to stand on the field and salute the flag on his own, while others suspected he was the team’s designated representative for the tradition. As it turned out, it was neither, but that didn’t stop the debate from raging on for hours.

Everyone has seen the second angle of the anthem photo by now, as it’s clear as day the team was a few feet behind Villanueva in the tunnel. He wasn’t a lone wolf who left the locker room because his respect for America superseded respect for his team. He wasn’t going rogue. He was just too far ahead of the rest of the team.

Only, why did it take a full day for that version of the story to come out?

Some Steelers players said they were surprised Villanueva walked out when the team had agreed to a plan after a 15-minute team meeting this weekend to decide what the players should do. What was supposed to be a sign of unity — staying out of the political football game to focus on actual football — turned into exactly the kind of divisive issue Tomlin and the team leaders were trying to avoid.

Tomlin tried to own the decision after the game as well — his first opportunity to talk to the press outside of his comments to CBS — but it fell on deaf ears when players openly questioned their teammate after the game. Villanueva, himself, wasn’t available for comment.

Gone was any semblance of belief the Steelers were making a statement by staying off the field. Gone was any thought the team was unified on how to react to Trump’s comments or the larger point of protesting during the anthem. (This is an important distinction: Players have chosen to protest during the national anthem for how they feel the government has let down minority communities in this country. Not one player has come out to say they are protesting the anthem or the military, despite how the narrative has shifted away from racial inequality to questioning people’s patriotism.)

“We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously,” James Harrison told PennLive. “But, I guess we weren’t.

Or maybe, as we came to find out late Monday, they were…?

It’s fair to say the aftermath of the loss to Chicago was a low point in the Tomlin era in Pittsburgh. Gone was any sense of cohesion from the Steelers, as evidenced by how the team played all day against a markedly inferior opponent. Old guys were burning windbreakers. It got ugly.

And yet, with tensions high across the whole league Sunday, Monday brought a new day, and a chance for the team to rally behind one another and restate their intentions.

Or not.

Roethlisberger instead opted to take to his personal website to share thoughts on the anthem, disagreeing with teammates who had voted to protest — per reports, the team vote was nearly split in half — and undercutting his teammates, coaches and front office by saying he wished the team had handled it differently.

I was unable to sleep last night and want to share my thoughts and feelings on our team’s decision to remain in the tunnel for the National Anthem yesterday. The idea was to be unified as a team when so much attention is paid to things dividing our country, but I wish we approached it differently. We did not want to appear divided on the sideline with some standing and some kneeling or sitting.

As a team, it was not a protest of the flag or the Anthem. I personally don’t believe the Anthem is ever the time to make any type of protest. For me, and many others on my team and around the league, it is a tribute to those who commit to serve and protect our country, current and past, especially the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice.

I appreciate the unique diversity in my team and throughout the league and completely support the call for social change and the pursuit of true equality. Moving forward, I hope standing for the Anthem shows solidarity as a nation, that we stand united in respect for the people on the front lines protecting our freedom and keeping us safe. God bless those men and women.

If there was any lingering doubt whether or not the Steelers were making a statement by not going onto the field by Monday, Roethlisberger completely squashed that. And in doing so, he made the Steelers look even more divided.

Monday afternoon the Steelers made Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward available for the media to answer questions about the anthem fiasco and this was the first time anyone seemed to appropriately explain why Villanueva was so far out in front of the rest of the team.

“When we came out of the tunnel, we told Al to come stand with the captains,” Roethlisberger explained Monday. “When we came out of the locker room into that tunnel it was a very small area. There was a flag or something coming off the field, so there were a bunch of Bears fans coming off the field holding that going in front of us, so it kind of held us up. Al was down at the end of the tunnel, and we told him we were going to come to the end of the tunnel — we were going to go the tunnel to stand together. And by the time all the chaos kind of happened in front of us, as we started to take our steps the anthem started. So we stopped, to show respect for the anthem.

“I regret not going down to Al, but Al didn’t know that we weren’t there, “he continued. “Al thought we were standing with him. So there was no division there. We were 20 feet behind him.”

That doesn’t make what happened sound any better. And rather than Roethlisberger take to his personal website to explain that scenario, he wrote that he couldn’t sleep because of the decision, then took a full day to come up with the “there was a lot of chaos and Al didn’t know we weren’t behind him” explanation. Doesn’t that sound worse? This all sounds worse.

Villanueva then spoke to the media, saying this national anthem ordeal has been “out of control,” and he took the blame for all of it.

He said that since so much of his life is based on his connection to the military, “I asked Ben if there was a way to define ‘inside’ or where we were going to stay and if I could watch the national anthem from the tunnel. He agreed and said the captains would be out there right behind me.”

Villanueva reiterated the situation Roethlisberger mentioned but said he knew the team wasn’t with him. Roethlisberger, again, told reporters Villanueva didn’t know.

“When I turned around to signal everyone to come in so they wouldn’t leave me alone, then that’s when they were essentially unable to exit. At that moment,” he said, “is the decision do you walk out of the national anthem to join your teammates — I know that would have looked extremely bad — or as a team do you start moving halfway through the national anthem?”

So he knew they weren’t there with him. Ben lied to protect his teammate. How much of the rest of what Roethlisberger said are we supposed to believe?

“What we can get out of this,” Villanueva said, “is that we butchered our plan to have a response for the national anthem and respect everyone’s opinions.”

Villanueva said that very few players knew he was going out of the tunnel for the anthem, as he went only to the team leadership. He apologized to his teammates but said being at Soldier Field and having wounded soldiers texting him telling him he had to be out there, he made the decision to talk to team leaders and go against what the entire team had decided.

Villanueva said he made the team, coaches and franchise look bad, “and that is my fault, and my fault only.”

Except, it sure sounds like it was Roethlisberger’s fault too, maybe more so than Villanueva. He agreed, as a team leader, to let one player go against what the team had decided. Initial reports were that the team was going to stay in the locker room, then it became the tunnel, then one player walked out alone and teammates after the game had no idea why or how that happened.

This is a divisive subject. If you’ve read this far you’re either nodding in approval or have already sent me angry tweets telling me I hate America. Villanueva said, himself, “in a big picture we’re discussing different things. Nobody thinks when you’re taking a knee you’re offending the flag, and they’re saying it.” That’s the most important part of this.

“I take no offense,” he said. “I don’t think veterans, at the end of the day, take any offense. They actually signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully.”

The issue, of course, is that some people do take offense. Some took the Steelers not going onto the field very personal, blaming Tomlin — in horrible terms — or the team or the league or Roger Goodell or Colin Kaepernick. That’s why Ben can’t sleep. That’s why there are multiple press conferences. That’s why Rooney released Tuesday’s statement.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears

Steelers offensive tackle Chris Hubbard takes a knee before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Villanueva’s jersey was the No. 1 seller in the NFL after that photo of him was released Sunday. He said when he sees it, though, he’s embarrassed.

“It wasn’t me stepping forward. I never planned to boycott the plan that the Steelers came up with. I just thought there could be some middle ground where I could stand in the tunnel, nobody would see me, and afterwards I just wouldn’t talk to the media like I do all the time … and two weeks later you guys would be talking about something else.”

He said in his head this was how he thought it would go down: “Steelers don’t show up for the national anthem. There’s a debate nationally about whether what’s right or wrong. Everything goes down. We go back to talking about North Korea or the healthcare, and we play the Baltimore Ravens, and we forget about it.”

If there’s one thing about America, it’s that we won’t forget about it. Not this. Not when there’s a new tweet barrage every morning talking about how NFL ratings are falling or more players should be fired for kneeling or how these protests aren’t about race they’re about the flag even though it is so very much about race and what the flag represents to all Americans, not just those in power.

So, no, we won’t just go on about the Baltimore Ravens. This story will continue. Especially if the Steelers keep feeling the need to explain what they did. Or didn’t do.