PITTSBURGH — Players who choose to kneel during the national anthem will have the support of coach Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, the coach said on a video conference call Tuesday.
Speaking for the first time since the death of George Floyd while in police custody and the widespread protests for justice and racial equality that followed, Tomlin said he supports players in any statements or actions they wish to take, “as long as it’s done so thoughtfully and with class.”
“We’ve spent a lot of group time talking about the ongoing issues, talking about the platform that they have and how to best utilize it and how to do so thoughtfully,” Tomlin said. “Our position is simple: We’re going to support our players and their willingness to participate in this — whether it’s statements or actions.
“You guys know my feelings, I’ve stated it in the past: Statements are good, but impact is better — particularly long-term impact. Those that have a desire to participate in a positive way, they’re going to be supported by us.”
Though many athletes and professional sports teams are being scrutinized for their actions — or lack thereof — in the wake of the protests, Tomlin isn’t focused on any leaguewide initiatives to utilize a large platform.
“That’s not my charge,” he said. “I hadn’t thought largely about the impact of the NFL or the responsibility of us as a whole.
“I really focus my energies on serving the players that I lead and making sure that they’re getting the support that they need regarding the present circumstances. I’ve taken a more narrower, grassroots approach. There are people that are employed to have that perspective and I’m not one of them.”
Like many NFL teams, Tomlin and the Steelers last navigated these discussions in 2017 when some players echoed quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 actions by kneeling during the anthem to raise awareness of police brutality — a move that was lambasted by President Donald Trump. In addition to saying in a speech that NFL owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field” if a player kneeled, he said they should fire or suspend players who protested the national anthem.
That year, the Steelers stressed unity and wanted to stay in the locker room together during the national anthem at Chicago’s Soldier Field in late September, and the typically football-focused Tomlin said his team “wouldn’t play politics.”
But offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who toured in Afghanistan, was photographed standing just inside a tunnel entrance to the field with his right hand over his heart during the anthem after being separated from the group of captains by a banner.
The image promoted the notion that the Steelers weren’t united on the decision to stay in the locker room — something that still frustrates members of the team.
“The thing that pissed me off about that is what we were trying to do is remain out of the spotlight and it got turned upside down,” captain Cam Heyward said last week. “To know that we were looked at as leaving one of our brothers out and leaving Al [Villanueva] out to dry when really, we got separated by a Play60 flag that was coming through and by the time the national anthem started, we were separated.
“It was never meant for us to ostracize a player. We are living in a climate where guys need to know they have a platform and they should be able to voice their opinions.”
This time around, the team discussions around social justice have been different than they were three years ago.
Since the protests following Floyd’s killing, the Steelers have had various team discussions on the state of the country and racial injustice. The team hasn’t publicly stated any intended actions or protest plans — though some have privately expressed plans to kneel — but there have been “structural committees” formed by longtime assistant head coach John Mitchell and Blayre Holmes, the Steelers’ director of community relations.
“This time period, this virtual offseason has really given us time to open the forum and hear from those guys on some of those critical things that are going on in our society,” Tomlin said. “We’re members of society like everybody else. We don’t live in a vacuum. It’s been good, frank communications.”