There were a lot of things that were lacking for the Pittsburgh Steelers on the field on Sunday, but the biggest thing that they lacked off of it was clarity. While they spent much of yesterday attempting to provide clarity, the problem is that the message has continued to get muddled, so I want to try to provide context to what has been said and conveyed over the past few days, a chronology and accounting of events, if you will.
The process began when players on the team began discussing the comments that the president made regarding NFL players who participated in protests. Head Coach Mike Tomlin was made aware that some players may have wanted to participate on Sunday in response.
The head coach, however, was more concerned with how that might create division in the locker room, or at least project an image of division, which could become a distraction, so he instructed the team to come to a consensus on what to do.
The roster held a players-only meeting on Saturday that lasted over an hour, during which a number of players, including Alejandro Villanueva, addressed the group before players voted on what course of action to take.
The idea of presenting a divided front, with some players standing, others kneeling, was shot down quickly, but the options of locking arms or simply not participating in the event at all drew a small margin. The latter was ultimately adopted.
One of the contentious issues among fans has been whether or not the non-participation amounted to an act of protest on the Steelers’ part, but that is something that has been rejected on multiple fronts. In his post-game press conference, Tomlin said, regarding “pressure” to adopt a political stance, “we chose not to play ball today in that regard”.
Villanueva, addressing reporters yesterday, also denied that it was a protest. He said that his teammates’ “first course of action was to go out there and stand up, but in order to remove any doubt of last second [change of heart], we decided to stay away from the situation. Not protest it, but stay away from the situation”.
While it was reported that the Steelers would remain in the locker room, they were in fact just inside the tunnel leading out to the field. They were not ‘hiding’ in the tunnel, as some suggested, but rather were there to be in view of the opening.
The night before the game, Villanueva told reporters, he contacted the leadership to ask them if he could be stationed at a position that was within view of the flag, and he was told that he could. This is where problems began to arise.
Consider the fact that this occurred in Soldier Field, not Heinz Field, so the team was not really familiar with the layout. Villanueva did not realize how far out of the tunnel he would have to be in order to be in view of the flag, and how are that would separate him from his teammates.
Thought I don’t understand the context or why it is, he also said his teammates were “essentially unable to exit” the locker room, explaining why when he signaled for the rest of the players to move forward, they could not physically join him, and forced him to make the decision to step out on his own. Villanueva said that they had “butchered” their plan.
While he acknowledged to reporters that the vast majority of the team was not aware that he was going to be stepping out the way he did, a number of players have already previously said that he would be regarded as an exception anyway. The likely truth of the matter is that he did not need to ask any sort of permission, but that’s just the kind of person he is.
And he is the kind of person who is going to take blame that he feels that he owns, regardless of how many people want to exalt him for whatever reason they might have. Some think that he ‘defied’ the team. Others think that the team ‘threw him under the bus’. Still more are now convinced that Tomlin and the team forced him, or at least pressured him, to apologize.
I think such a suggestion is doing a disservice to the type of man that he has shown himself to be. He is exactly the type of person who would of his own volition do exactly what he did on Sunday, to explain what happened and why and how he happened and to take ownership of what he viewed as his role in how things developed.
The Steelers’ intention on Sunday was to depoliticize themselves, at least for that week, working on such short notice, to take themselves out of the spotlight and project an image of unity. That has completely and utterly backfired, and now even the aftermath is viewed as nothing but coerced damage control for many. They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, after all. Is it getting warmer?