"This probably cannot be described as business as usual, so I'll start by addressing the elephant in the room and discuss some elements of this anthem discussion that has been surrounding us. I'll go all the way back to the beginning in an effort to move forward. We have a big game this week. Our focus needs to be on that game, it will be on that game. Hopefully by taking the time to outline some of the things that have transpired and our attitude and spirit regarding it, it will minimize some of the questions moving forward. I think as an organization we've done that throughout this process, worked hard to be extremely clear, even though in these times, at times it's difficult to be perceived in that way."
And so it began. Mike Tomlin's regular weekly news conference was anything but regular today. Normally a 20-minute session that focuses on a particular week of an NFL regular season that's bounded on one end by the previous game and by the upcoming game on the other, this session went almost that long before Tomlin fielded a football question.
"These are divisive times," said Tomlin. "I've been very proud that our team has always been a team that's been respectful of the anthem. We've had 100 percent participation in the anthem since all of these things started. Our guys have opinions regarding social injustice and so forth, but they never used (the playing of the national anthem) as a platform. We're not a group that's interested in making statements. We're a group that's interested in making impacts. Things that we feel strongly about we give of ourselves in our free time. Tuesday is a big day for that. Our guys are in the community as we speak, and they have been."
Indeed, as Tomlin was standing at a podium inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex today, all of the Steelers rookies were joined by WDVE Morning Show host Randy Baumann at Children's Hospital for an afternoon of crafts, video game stations, and other activities for patients and the players to participate in together.
Back at the podium, Tomlin took his news conference back to the time when the anthem protests first began, and he said the Steelers never participated in those for two reasons: because they believed they were in a stadium only to play football, and because of a unanimous respect for Al Villanueva, their starting left tackle and a former Army Ranger who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan.
That belief changed during the week leading up to the game against the Bears, in Tomlin's estimation, and the source of the change were comments/tweets from President Donald Trump, which drew responses from every level of the NFL, from Commissioner Roger Goodell, to owners of individual teams, to players themselves.
Tomlin said the reaction of some Steelers was strong enough that he believed the solidarity that had been a characteristic of the team "probably would've been breached. That created an issue for us."
That led to the events of Saturday night in Chicago, where Tomlin told the team, "whatever you do, do it together, 100 percent participation, or you do nothing." That was his only mandate, that the team remained unified, or "we do business as usual, we won't let divisive times divide us," which meant standing on the sideline as a team for the anthem.
The way Tomlin characterized the outcome of the players' meeting was that "they weren't going to be goaded into a demonstration of disrespect toward the anthem. They weren't going to be pressured into it by those who are opposed. We just decided that we were going to sit it out. We weren't going to play politics. We were going to come play the game. That decision was reached, and the means of doing that was to stay in the tunnel, to not have a demonstration of any kind when the anthem was playing, and then take the field and go play."
Then came Sunday, and the game against the Bears at Soldier Field. "We tried to be very transparent about what we were doing and why we were doing it," said Tomlin, who broke the news about the players' plan to CBS during the pregame period. At halftime, Steelers President Art Rooney II issued a statement, and then Tomlin addressed the issue again in his postgame press briefing.
Their plan for the anthem, just like so many offensive and defensive game plans over the course of an NFL season, didn't work the way it was drawn up. For reasons explained by Al Villanueva himself, he found himself separated from the rest of the team by several feet during the playing of the anthem, and the subsequent visuals hinted at a division that everyone associated with the actual events has denied.
"Al has a unique story," said Tomlin. "We respect Al, we respect the things that have gone on with him. He asked if he could get toward the front (in the tunnel) so he could see and partake in the anthem, and I said, sure. Somehow that was perceived as division, and it's a shame to put Al in that position because, man, he is a team guy. He has always been a team guy, as are most of our guys. We've worked extremely hard at being united, particularly in things that are aimed at dividing us."
Tomlin went on to explain the reason that he, along with Todd Haley, James Saxon, and Mike Munchak, stood on the sideline during the playing of the anthem while the rest of the team stayed back in the tunnel was because his regular pregame routine calls for him to make communications checks, check his headsets, find the location of the 25-second clocks at each end of the stadium, and also scan the jumbotrons for where the down and distance and time of game information is displayed. He said he told his assistants they were free to handle their pregame responsibilities in any way they chose – from the sideline, stand with their players, whatever.
"We were making a statement of non-participation one way or the other," said Tomlin. "Like I've said repeatedly, and so has Art, we don't have any problem talking openly about this. We have nothing to hide. We got into this with the purest of intentions – to get ready to play a football game and work to remain focused on that. We've been respectful of the anthem, we didn't participate in any protests to this point, and we take a great deal of pride in that. Not that we're not socially conscious, not that we're not community conscious. We just don't believe in demonstrations, we believe in impact. So we give of ourselves in our free time in that area, with Tuesdays being our day for that, not moments prior to kickoff."
Then Tomlin reiterated that everything changed during the week leading up to the game against the Bears.
"The SOB statements. The statements that seemingly goad certain athletes into demonstrating," said Tomlin. "Or, those athletes get pressure from those who oppose the goaders. We wanted to protect those athletes. We wanted to have 100 percent solidarity in this matter, so we chose not to participate. In the same ways that those who have had feelings about social issues in the past have chosen not to demonstrate in a show of respect for those who want to respect the anthem and so we stand and respect the anthem."
So did the players feel the president goaded them into where we are now?
"Those are my feelings. Those are my feelings," said Tomlin. "These guys are football players. They don't partake in politics. All they largely want to do is kick that ball off and play. But things are happening around them that apply pressure to them. Whether they feel like they're being goaded, and that's your perception, or there's another perception that those who oppose some of (Mr. Trump's) statements are applying pressure on players to demonstrate. I'm opposed to both factions, to be honest with you. I'm an advocate for players. I'm an advocate for those who simply want to do their jobs. Everybody has opinions. Everybody is entitled to an opinion. That's what makes this country great. There's nothing wrong with that. We just believe there's a place and time for it, and the place and time for us has been in our free time."
On whether Tomlin, as an African-American man, feels pressure to demonstrate:
"I don't worry about my pressure. I'm like (Oklahoma State coach) Mike Gundy. I'm grown. I'm 45. Nobody is making me do anything. You're not goading me into doing anything. You're not pressuring me into doing anything. I love what I do. When I step into a stadium, I'm there to do a job. I'm passionate about a lot of things. I'm active in my community. I want to help as many people as I can help. I want to utilize this platform for good. My track record speaks for itself in that regard, but I do it in my free time."
On how this issue will resolve itself:
"We don't care how it's resolved. We don't. We have nothing to hide. We're just a group trying to play football, and people are using us and these circumstances for their benefit, and we resist it."
On his opinion about many of the issues that led to the protests:
"Personally, I have an opinion on a lot of things, but I keep that opinion to myself. I would not abuse this platform that is my job as I stand at this podium and express my personal opinions regarding things that are not football-related. That's just how I feel about it."
On the perception that the visual of Villanueva standing alone indicated a divided team:
"We're not guided by perception. We're just trying to do what's right, and when you try to do what's right and you analyze it, sure, you can analyze what you did and why you did it in an effort to get better. We do that in a lot of aspects of our lives. But we're not driven by perception. We're just trying to win football games, utilize this platform – this blessing that we have to coach and play in this league – for good, trying to make the lives of those we come into contact with better, try to improve life for those in our community. That's our agenda.
On a reporter asking, "Will you accept one more political question? I'm sorry:"
"Don't apologize. Like Villanueva, you shouldn't have to apologize. You're just trying to do your job."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"We have a number of injuries that we're watching and managing. Sean Davis, with his ankle; Mike Mitchell had a hamstring strain of some description at the end of the game, and we'll monitor him at the early portions of this week. Jesse James has a shoulder injury, and we'll monitor him at the early portions of this week. All of those guys, we'll watch them this week and cater their work accordingly and get a window in terms of their participation as we get closer to game time. Those guys who have been out, we're optimistic about their inclusion, whether it's Stephon Tuitt or T.J. Watt. But just like the first guys I mentioned, their participation and the quality of their participation throughout the week will ultimately determine their availability."