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Steelers stay in locker room and don't participate in anthem

Joe Rutter
| Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, 11:39 a.m.

The Steelers didn't take a knee during the national anthem Sunday. They didn't take the field, either.

On a day when scores of NFL players kneeled in protest of President Trump's comments that players who disrespect the anthem should be fired, coach Mike Tomlin kept the Steelers sequestered in the tunnel leading to Soldier Field.

The Steelers' decision to forgo the anthem was made after a players-only meeting Saturday night, and Tomlin supported it. Tomlin said he conferred with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Sunday morning and “told him of our intentions.”

“I heard rumblings of guys talking during the course of the day yesterday, and my contention was that we would not allow politics (to) divide us,” Tomlin said after the Steelers' 23-17 overtime loss. “We are football players and a football team. If any of them felt like something needed to be done, I asked those guys to discuss it, and whatever they discussed, we have 100 percent participation or we have nothing. … They were not going to be disrespectful during the anthem, so they chose not to participate during the anthem, but at the same time many of them were not going to accept the words of our president.

“So we decided to sit out and not take the field, to remove ourselves from it.”

Tomlin, however, stood on the sideline with assistant coaches Mike Munchak, Todd Haley and James Saxon.

Left tackle Alejandro Villaneuva, a former Army Ranger, stood at the tunnel heading onto the field and participated in the anthem.

Villanueva was not available to reporters, and Tomlin didn't explain his decision to be on the field during the anthem.

“Al's got to stand,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said. “The things he done, the things he's seen. Al has lost guys in battle. Think about it, we're playing a football game, and this guy has lost guys in battle.”

At a rally Friday in Alabama, Trump condemned NFL players who kneel during the anthem. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the trend in 2016 when he began sitting, then kneeling during the anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality in the U.S.

“Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that (expletive) off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!”

Trump continued to express his displeasure Sunday on Twitter. In one tweet, Trump said that “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad Ratings!” In another tweet, he said people “MUST honor and respect” the American flag.

During an impromptu news conference as he boarded Air Force One on Sunday, Trump said his objection to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality “has nothing to do with race.”

Instead, Trump said, it has to do with “respect for our country and respect for our flag.”

“Our soldiers, our first responders” should be treated with respect,” he said.

The president's comments angered several Steelers players.

“Everybody is given their platform,” said Cam Heyward, a defensive captain. “There are a lot of people who look up to us, and we appreciate every single person. We appreciate the troops, every policeman who goes out and risks their life for us. We also appreciate our fans, we appreciate the people who lose their lives.

“For one person to call shame on multiple people and say we should lose our jobs because we care is not right.”

Said cornerback Joe Haden: “We're professional athletes; we're supposed to present ourselves in a certain way. The way that things have been going, we don't feel like the president is doing the same as far as the respect, and the way he addresses people is very unprofessional.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell lashed back at Trump on Saturday, calling the president's words “divisive” and a “lack of respect” for the league.

Steelers president Art Rooney II, after initially saying he had “nothing to add,” reconsidered and issued a statement at halftime.

“Our players have stayed unified and have respected the fact that, like our country, there are diverse opinions in our locker room,” Rooney said. “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.”

The Associated Press contributed. Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com. or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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