PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing for a fierce rivalry game against the Baltimore Ravens.
While that’s happening, the organization is still facing backlash from opting to stay in the tunnel for the national anthem before Sunday’s game in Chicago.
Today, during his weekly press conference, head coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers have always been respectful of the national anthem.
“These are divisive times. I’ve been very proud that our team has always been a team that’s respectful of the anthem. We’ve had 100 percent participation in the anthem since all of these things started. Obviously, our guys have opinions regarding social injustice and so forth, but they never used that as a platform. We’re a group that’s not interested in making statements. We’re a group that’s interested in making impacts. Things that we feel strongly about, we give of ourselves and our free time,” Tomlin said.
Watch: Tomlin Discusses National Anthem Controversy:
Only one player stood outside the tunnel for the anthem. Alejandro Villanueva stood with his hand over his heart and sang along.
On Monday, Villanueva apologized for unintentionally throwing his team under the bus. Tomlin said Villanueva did not need to issue such an apology.
“I don’t know why Villanueva was apologizing. He had nothing to apologize for. I guess he feels like he brought this upon us somehow and that’s a shame,” Tomlin said.
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Tomlin highlighted the fact that the Steelers have had 100 percent participation in the anthem since the demonstrations began.
“Last week, some comments were made where that probably would have been breached. There were some guys within our group that felt strongly because of the comments made a week ago. We’ve always had 100 percent participation so that created an issue for us. In the past, those that maybe wanted to participate have not. They felt a little differently, I thought it created an opportunity to discuss,” he said.
“There’s also another reason why I believe that our group has never participated in anthem demonstrations. We have a former serviceman on our team in Villanueva. Regardless of how guys have felt in the past, whether they’ve had a desire to do it or not, I think the respect for the anthem, the respect they have for Al as a brother has made those demonstrations zero. It’s never been an issue for us.”
Tomlin said he left the decision in the players’ hands, but said whatever they decided, they needed to all be on the same page.
“On Saturday night, I told the team, ‘Whatever it is you do, you do it together 100 percent participation, or you do nothing, we do business as usual because we won’t let divisive times divide us,’” Tomlin said.
“We just decided that we were going to sit it out, that we weren’t going to play politics. We were going to come play the game,” Tomlin said. “The means of doing that was to stay in the tunnel and to not have a demonstration of any kind when the anthem was playing and then take the field and go play.
Some fans and critics of their actions have called the team unpatriotic or disrespectful. Tomlin disagreed with that notion.
“It wasn’t done in the spirit to be disrespectful to the anthem. It was about that group being undivided in the same ways it had been undivided prior to the comments made last week,” Tomlin said. “To perceive our football team as anything less than patriotic is not only incorrect, but wrong. We’ve got a group that is tremendously patriotic, not only in words but in action. We love and respect the sacrifices made by those that provide the blanket of protection we enjoy whether it’s the military or public service.”
KDKA’s Lynne Hayes-Freeland has more from fans —
But many fans still have mixed feelings about the situation.
“I think we interpreted what we saw initially, and that may not of been the whole story,” said fan David Jones, of Forest Hills.
“I feel like now they’re trying to say face because they didn’t expect to receive the backlash,” Pittsburgher Joseph Catrucco said.
“The people who are saying it are the people who voted for Donald Trump,” said Steelers fan Davion Taylor, of East Liberty. “No disrespect, but they’re the only ones getting hyped out it.”
Some fans initially said they would not support, watch or root for the Steelers anymore after what happened Sunday.
“I think that’s kind of ridiculous,” said Dave Barbor, of Carrick. “I think if you’re a Steeler fan, you’re a Steelers fan. I think that politics in football don’t mix, or shouldn’t mix.”
Team President Art Rooney II also issued a statement Tuesday saying the move was not intended to be a boycott of the national anthem.