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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's handling of NFL protests a 'cop out,' prof says

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, 12:48 p.m.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks on during a preseason game against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks on during a preseason game against the Falcons Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at Heinz Field.

A University of Pittsburgh professor who specializes in studying racial and social problems thinks Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin missed an opportunity to tackle one of the nation's most timely and divisive issues head-on.

Larry Davis, who is director of Pitt's Center on Race and Social Problems, viewed Tomlin's announcement that the entire team would stay off the field during the national anthem before Sunday's kickoff in Chicago as a cop out.

“He literally hid from the problem,” Davis said Monday of Tomlin's pregame decision. “I don't think he's a bad guy but he's trying to stay out of it. You can't stay out of what is going on in America right now.”

Trump started a firestorm over weekend by saying athletes who protest by kneeling during the anthem are un-American and should be fired from their jobs.

Michael Stelacio, former department commander of the Pennsylvania American Legion, is disgusted by the protests but acknowledged the players have every right to kneel.

“They certainly have a right to kneel, and I can exercise my right not to watch,” said Stelacio, 73, an Army veteran. “I think it's a disgrace.”

Civil disobedience is never comfortable, never popular and almost always controversial, Davis said. Those at the center of such movements throughout the years were generally reviled at the outset. Some, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, eventually came to be beloved and viewed as heroes.

Davis, who is black, scoffed at the notion by some that NFL players should protest somewhere else.

“It's always untimely when protests occur, that's what makes them work,” he said. “They wouldn't be effective if nobody was watching.”

Fanning the flames

President Trump is only fanning the flames and drawing more attention to the sideline protests with his tweets and bombastic statements, Davis said. During a rally Friday night in Huntsville, Ala., Trump said: “Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired, he's fired.'”

Stelacio, who is now an American Legion alternate national executive committeeman, voted for Trump. But he did not condone the name-calling.

“He's playing to his base, but you can't call people names like that,” Stelacio said of Trump. “You treat people with respect.”

Davis found Trump's language “unpresidential” and predicted it would breathe new life into the protests.

The president's words spurred more than 200 NFL players to kneel during the national anthem. Many coaches and some team owners locked arms with the players.

“He did the movement a favor by expanding it,” Davis said. “It caught fire, but I hope people don't lose sight about what this was originally about.”

NFL players like Colin Kaepernick originally began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

“I don't want people to think this is only about Trump,” Davis said. “I want people to think about why these players are protesting. These guys are millionaires and risking their livelihoods, so that shows you something must really be wrong.

“Here is a nonviolent way to protest. We should applaud it.”

A time and place

Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Keith Harman said he can swear an oath to protect the Constitution and the freedom of speech guaranteed in its First Amendment, but still oppose how people choose to protest.

“There is a time and place for civil debate, and wearing team jerseys and using sporting events to disrespect our country doesn't wash with millions of military veterans who have and continue to wear real uniforms on real battlefields around the globe,” Harman said in a statement.

Despite opposing viewpoints, Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said taking a knee is a fundamental right of the players.

“It's a free country,” he said. “We sometimes think of our sports teams as if they are part of the government because they are so communal. Technically speaking, they are private corporations.”

Tomlin said Sunday that the decision for players to stay off the field was not intended to disrespect the anthem.

“People shouldn't have to choose,” he said. “If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn't be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn't be separated from his teammate who chooses not to. So we're not participating today.

“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.”

Stelacio supported Tomlin's decision.

“I think Tomlin is a good man,” Stelacio said. “He said he didn't want his players in the middle of the controversy and that's a good move on his part.”

Still, Stelacio was thrilled to learn Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army ranger, apparently bucked the team's decision and stood on the edge of the field during the anthem.

“I was really proud to hear about Villanueva,” he said.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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