Pittsburgh, a city that President Donald Trump has lauded at speeches and events, found itself at the center of a new controversy fuelled by the president this weekend.
On Sunday, two of Pittsburgh’s professional sports teams were faced with responding to controversies surrounding Trump — first to his suggestion that NFL owners get any “son of a b—-” who protests during the national anthem “off the field” and then to his revoking of an invitation to Golden State Warriors’ star Stephen Curry to visit the White House with his championship-winning team.
Their responses quickly became a focus in the broader national discussion over Trump’s comments.
Set to play a 1 p.m. game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the first teams faced with responding to Trump’s remarks from the weekend.
More than an hour before kickoff, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told CBS that the team had decided to stay in the locker room during the national anthem so as not to make players have to choose between kneeling or standing during the anthem.
“You know, these are very divisive times for our country and for us as a football team it’s about us remaining solid,” Tomlin said. “We’re not going to be divided by anything said by anyone.”
He told players, “If you feel the need to do anything I’m going to be supportive of that — as Americans you have that right. But whatever we do we’re going to do 100%, we’re going to do together. We’re not going to let divisive times or divisive individuals affect our agenda.”
The Steelers then became the first team to not take the field during the anthem on Sunday, something that some other teams decided to do in games later on Sunday.
But not all of the Steelers players stayed behind.
As the national anthem began at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva stood alone in the tunnel separating the locker rooms from the field, hand over his heart. Villanueva, an offensive lineman who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, sang every word of the song.
In doing so, Villanueva became the face of those who are against the anthem protests. His jersey sales quickly soared to the top of the NFL charts. Many who were upset by the kneeling protests, which were started last season by Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, to shed light on the treatment of black Americans in the US, were quick to endorse Villanueva’s actions.
“Thank you Alejandro #Villanueva for standing for your country & making America proud in every uniform you’ve worn,” tweeted Rep. Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican. “#Steelers #NationalAnthem.”
“The only Pittsburgh Steeler with the guts to show up for the national anthem, Alejandro Villanueva He’s a veteran,” tweeted Harlan Hill, an occasional pro-Trump TV pundit. “He gets it. #MAGA ???????? “
Even Trump himself was beaming about Villanueva’s move, gushing over the Steelers starting left tackle during a meeting with leaders of conservative organisations Monday night, Axios reported.
Sentiment on Villanueva’s own team was mixed following the game, which the Steelers, a Super Bowl contender, dropped to the mediocre Bears.
Following the loss, Tomlin said he “didn’t appreciate our football team being dragged into politics this weekend,” echoing his sentiment from earlier in the day in saying that these “are divisive times in the United States, and it’s a shame.”
The Steelers had discussed their response to Trump’s comments on players kneeling during a players-only meeting on Saturday night. Starting offensive lineman Ramon Foster described the meeting as highly emotional. The team was split on what it wanted to do, with some players wanting to kneel — which would have been the first time any Steelers did so during the anthem — while others wanted to stand. A compromise was met to have everyone stay in the locker room, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Players responded to Villanueva breaking ranks.
“We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously,” Steelers linebacker James Harrison told Penn Live. “But I guess we weren’t.”
Foster acknowledged that, for the former Army Ranger, “it’s different for him.”
The responses continued on Monday, including from, arguably, the two most significant Steelers players in this situation.
The first was from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the longest-tenured Steelers player and someone who received a shout-out from Trump during a Pennsylvania campaign rally he held last year.
“The idea was to be unified as a team when so much attention is paid to things dividing our country, but I wish we approached it differently,” he said in the statement. “We did not want to appear divided on the sideline with some standing and some kneeling or sitting. As a team, it was not a protest of the flag or the anthem.”
He added that he doesn’t “believe” the national anthem is the appropriate time to “make any type of protest” and said the song is a “tribute” to military members.
“I appreciate the unique diversity in my team and throughout the league and completely support the call for social change and the pursuit of true equality,” he said.
Then, not too long after Roethlisberger released his statement, Villanueva addressed reporters, expressing embarrassment for the whole ordeal.
“This national anthem ordeal has sort of been out of control, and there’s a lot of blame on myself,” he said, according to The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, adding, “Every single one of my teammates is extremely supportive and extremely patriotic. I can honestly said that.”
Villanueva said that he is “absolutely” OK with teammates kneeling during the anthem. And he noted that players who have kneeled during the anthem have approached him to thank him for his military service.
“I made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only,” he said. “I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault…only.”
“Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed,” he added.
While the Steelers were making their pre-anthem preparations, another Pittsburgh sports team entered into the discussion over Trump’s remarks — the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, the reigning Stanley Cup champions who were one of a few recent championship teams that were set to visit Trump’s White House.
That was until this weekend, when Trump uninvited the NBA’s Steph Curry, of the Golden State Warriors, from visiting the White House to celebrate the team’s NBA championship win. Curry had said he was planning to skip the visit, and the rest of his team followed suit after Trump’s comments aimed at Curry.
Trump’s decision to uninvite Curry led to more backlash from across the sports world, which was already struggling over how to respond to his NFL comments. Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James called Trump a “bum” on Twitter for uninviting Curry, while former NBA star Kobe Bryant blasted the president in his own tweet.
Later that same day, North Carolina’s men’s basketball team, which won the most recent NCAA title, announced that they too would not make an upcoming trip to the White House.
That compelled the Penguins to announce what they would be doing following Trump’s weekend of bomb-throwing.
Unlike the Warriors and Tar Heels, the Penguins announced that they’d be keeping their visit to the White House.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins respect the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House,” the team said in a statement. “We attended White House ceremonies after previous championships — touring the historic building and visiting briefly with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama — and have accepted an invitation to attend again this year.
“Any agreement or disagreement with a president’s politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways,” the team continued. “However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit.”
Trump was ecstatic.
“Please to inform that the Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL will be joining me at the White House for Ceremony,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Great team!”
The team’s decision, and Trump’s approval of it, sparked plenty of reaction — some of it negative.
“The Penguins chose a side. The wrong one, as it happens,” tweeted Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur. “Enjoy standing next to that guy.”
“How hockey is this: Pittsburgh Penguins have accepted the invite to the White House. Get in line. Do what you’re told,” tweeted Steve Simmons, a Toronto Sun columnist. “The hockey culture.”
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