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Kevin Gorman: Steelers' anthem protest potentially divisive

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, 8:33 p.m.
The Steelers' Alejandreo Villanueva stood for the national anthem as the rest of the team stayed in the tunnel before the game against the Bears on Sunday.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Alejandreo Villanueva stood for the national anthem as the rest of the team stayed in the tunnel before the game against the Bears on Sunday.

CHICAGO - When it came time to play the national anthem — or is it an anthem for nationalism? — Sunday, the Steelers sat it out, the Pirates stood and you took sides.

The Penguins? Well, they accepted an invitation to the White House, where President Trump is playing politics and preying on our patriotism.

In a 22-hour span, Trump tweeted for players to stand for the "Star Spangled Banner," for fans to boycott NFL games until the players do and called for their firings "until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country."

So, the NFL came to a crossroads Sunday.

Teams, including your Steelers, had to make a decision over whether to perform a silent protest.

"These are divisive times in the United States, and it's a shame," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're not politicians. We're coaches and professional athletes. ... To be quite honest with you, I didn't appreciate our football team being dragged into politics."

We're way past Colin Kaepernick taking a knee last season in objection to oppression and police brutality.

Now, NFL players — especially black players — had to decide whether to be bullied by Trump or to use their platform to raise awareness for their constitutional right to free speech.

"Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views."

That's a Trump tweet from Jan. 22.

But the President is trying to take advantage of an anthem issue that has divided our country — largely because the initial intention of the protests has been turned into a question of national loyalty — and work it in his favor.

So the Steelers held a team meeting Saturday night and decided that whatever they did in protest, they would do together. That way, no one would be singled out before their 23-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

And it backfired. While the team remained out of view, Tomlin and assistant coaches Todd Haley, Mike Munchak and James Saxon stood on the Steelers sideline for the anthem.

Then the cameras caught Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, standing at the end of the tunnel with his hand over his heart.

In an attempt to show solidarity over a divisive issue, the Steelers instead left their hero soldier standing alone.

After the game, Villanueva left the locker room without speaking to reporters. His teammates defended his decision to stand proud for the anthem.

"I think Al feels he has a need to do that," Steelers right guard David DeCastro said. "It seems people are arguing the wrong things here. I think everyone in America can agree on patriotism and guys fighting for the flag.

"Obviously, there's some things going on with racism that people seem to agree upon, too. It seems like using the anthem for that, I wish there was a better way."

The Steelers — who have 38 black players on their 53-man roster — would prefer to stand for the anthem and play football. But they realize they have a responsibility to their public platforms.

So, we're left with questions:

Did the Steelers really stand for something by sitting out the anthem? Did the Pirates actually sit out the hot-topic issue by standing for the anthem?

Are the Penguins really that tone deaf, to publicly accept an invite to the White House while the rest of the sports world is up in arms over Trump's tweets?

And, in this age of stick-to-sports rhetoric, will you still support your favorite team at a time when players stage such protests? Or do you believe the Steelers whose jerseys you wear and whose touchdowns you celebrate are here simply for your entertainment?

What a shame it would be if all Sunday's protest did was divide the town with the great football team.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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