No longer 'sticking to sports'

Their voices are powerful.

And it's not because Cameron Heyward and Vince Williams are Steelers players, NFL athletes.

Their voices are powerful because they are black men living in a world where they are a target, where they fear for themselves and those they love and worry about the world their young children are going to grow up in.

On Saturday, they used their voices to express how they feel about the racial injustice in the country right now, but the most important thing, they aren't just all talk. They are also about action.

"We can't be blind with what is going on," said Heyward. "We have seen too many injustices to be silent. Our community is hurt day in and day out. We are left with the question, why. As we are held accountable on the field, we want to be accountable off the field. We feel others should be as well.

"We didn't want to just give a statement. Statements do a lot, but not enough. Going forward we want to have action behind that. Through our organization we are going to have a lot of change going forward. We want something attainable that is going to be long lasting, constant and provides a better way for our children.

"When we see these injustices happen, we see ourselves, our children, our fathers, our sons, our friends, being shot and killed. For us to stay idling by and not make a difference, that is a responsibility we can't give up.

"We all have children. What we are looking at right now is not going to get it done for our children in the future. We have had Mason and Dino (Coach Mike Tomlin's sons) come over (to practice) many times and to know that they're growing up in a world where they are not accepted, is unacceptable. My children, Vince's children are going to have to see this play out, and the fact that it's getting played out repeatedly, and it's becoming a theme, and something that is so natural, is something that is unacceptable to me."

Heyward and Williams spoke via zoom the morning after the team took the first step, a powerful statement before their Friday evening night practice when Tomlin spoke, and the players stood arm-in-arm in a show of solidarity against social injustice.

"We came together as players. We came together with a statement. We made a stance," said Williams. "We thought there was nobody better than Coach Tomlin to deliver that because of who he is in the NFL and who he is as a person. We decided to come together, lock arms and show compassion. Even thought we might be in the NFL and we are professional athletes, we are still sympathetic to everything going on and we feel that."

Throughout the week athletes and sports teams have been speaking up, asking for change, looking for a way to end the police brutality that has taken the lives of too many in the black community. And after years of athletes being degraded by being told to 'stick to sports,' their voices, their call for a change and their actions are finally being heard and respected.

"Sometimes people say sports should stay out of politics, politics should stay out of sports," said Williams. "If you look back in history, that has never been the case. I am encouraged by that. Me being able to talk to people about it and have conversations is going to help. If they are going to listen to me because I am a football player, I am encouraged by that.

"We've always talked about everything. Mr. (Art) Rooney has developed a culture in this building that we can talk about anything and everything with anybody in our building, from the top to the bottom. If I am having a problem in my life, or if I am having a situation that confuses me, I can talk to Mr. Rooney about it directly because he is in the building with me every single day. We have casual conversations with anybody in our building. It doesn't matter their race, creed or religion. Anybody that puts their hand in the pile and is a Steeler, we have open dialogue and treat them like they are part of the family. We are never really put in situations where we feel like we have to go out and make these bold public stances, we are encouraged to do whatever we can to help our community.

"I can go ask anybody in the Steelers family what I need to do to get that done, and they are going to help me out. I think now that we are seeing the need, and the people in the community want to hear from us, we're here and we're going to speak."

The Steelers have formed social justice committees among the players for them to have avenues to make an impact. They range from working on voter engagement and working on a voter hub, to community, police and criminal justice reform.

"We understand the job is not done," said Heyward. "We have a job to do and we want to make sure we take advantage of that."

For the past three years, Steelers player have worked closely with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, much of that initiated by Maurkice Pouncey, but his teammates all being a part of it. It's been an effort to help bridge the gap between the community and the police.

"We understand the police relationships," said Williams. "We are not an organization to just make brash or bold statements. We are encouraged to go out in our communities and take things on as a personal approach. That is what we do. That is what we like to focus on. We have to be more diligent. That is what we are going to focus on."

Heyward said him and Williams were serving as a voice for their teammates, and they are blessed to have more opportunities to let their voice be heard than when the fight for racial justice and the civil rights movement began in the 1960s.

"I look my child in the eyes and say I am fighting for your future when I see this stuff happen," said Heyward. "I am happy to se the different people speak and see the resources we have that are different than the 1960s and we can reach different people. I just hope there is more change to come of that."

Making a Powerful Statement: Coach Mike Tomlin and the entire Steelers team stood together as one, and prayed as one, before Friday night's practice as they addressed social injustice. Read More ->> Making a powerful statement