Unless you have spent the last few weeks in a huddle, absolutely blitzed or you fumbled the remote somewhere beneath the couch, chances are that you caught the seemingly off-sides situation between professional athletes and the president of the United States regarding standing, kneeling or protesting during the national anthem. For self-described die-hard Steelers fans both in Pittsburgh and across the country, the controversy is still in motion.
“It was maybe an hour or two before game time, my brother sent a text to my family with the ESPN news alert that they are all going to stay in the locker room,” said Hannah Ackerman, 28, of first learning about the Steelers’ decision to refrain from taking the field during the “Star-Spangled Banner” on Sept. 24.
With the Steelers set to play the Chicago Bears in the Windy City, Adam Aronson, a Chicago resident who grew up in Stanton Heights, brought his two children to see the Week 3 contest.
“I paid $2,600 for three tickets in the first row behind the Steelers bench,” said the owner of multiple Steelers jerseys, Terrible Towels, a Steelers branded tire cover and even a Steelers Crock-Pot for “making cholent on Shabbos.”
“Considering that the two teams meet in Chicago once every eight years and the difficulty of returning to Pittsburgh for games, I decided to go the whole nine yards,” Aronson added.
Along with his 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, the life-long Steelers fan arrived two hours early to sit in the front-row seats and watch the team practice. Unbeknown to Aronson, the day became memorable for all of the wrong reasons.
As Beaver native and professional singer Wilbur Pauley delivered the national anthem, the majority of Pittsburgh Steelers remained off of the field.
“You know, these are very divisive times for our country, and for us as a football team, it’s about us remaining solid. We’re not going to be divided by anything said by anyone,” said head coach Mike Tomlin to Jamie Erdahl, a CBS Sports sideline reporter, before the game.
Two days earlier, during a rally in Huntsville, Ala., on Sept. 22, President Donald Trump discussed player protests and possible repercussions. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired,” said Trump to a cheering crowd.
During the conversation with Erdahl, Tomlin added, “Whatever we do, we’re going to do 100 percent; we’re going to do together. We’re not going to let divisive times or divisive individuals affect our agenda.”
Although most of the team stayed in the tunnel during the national anthem, former Army Ranger, Alejandro Villanueva, as well as several coaches from the Steelers organization, broke from the group.
Last week’s display was “disjointed,” said Brian Goldwasser of Pittsburgh.
“They hadn’t come up with a concrete plan. In the end, you had four coaches on the sideline, most of the guys in the tunnel and one guy outside of the tunnel. There were three different things going on.”
“I support what Tomlin said,” and apart from the possible awkwardness of having one player separate from the team during the anthem, “I think it made sense why they did what they did,” explained Ackerman, a New York resident who apart from watching every Steelers game on television and seeing the Steelers play live whenever the team is in New York, travels to Pittsburgh for “at least” one home game per season.
Messaging aside, the endeavor created confusion, said Elan Sokol, a Pittsburgh resident.
“The idea for the Steelers to not participate in the national anthem because they wanted to focus on football clearly failed and produced the opposite effect. The Steelers got manhandled on Sunday by an inferior team, and it was evident that they were not focused on winning the game,” said Elan Sokol of the Steelers’ 23-17 loss.
But while Goldwasser agreed that the loss could have “possibly” been caused by pregame distractions, Ackerman opined that the team was merely “outplayed.”
“The defense was sluggish and let up a bunch of big plays. It seemed like they couldn’t keep up with the Bears’ offense,” she said.
Wins and losses aside, it is the team’s demeanor that is most bothersome, said Aronson.
“My father is a decorated Vietnam veteran, and I was raised to respect our anthem and the flag and to thank any veterans and active service members, and I have made sure to instill this in my five children. So when the team disrespected the anthem and flag, it was a real disgrace.”
The following Sunday, prior to their Oct. 1 game against division-rival Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers stood on the sideline during the national anthem.
According to Aronson, the decision was a lateral move generated by “backlash from fans from the last game.”
“I thought it was appropriate, but it was too late. They made a statement where they are,” said the “disappointed” fan.
Ultimately, with fans wondering what their team will do each week, this entire situation has become a distraction, said Ackerman.
“It’s gotten a little crazy,” agreed Goldwasser.
There may be a solution, said Sokol. “Perhaps politics should be discussed with politics and sports should be with sports, and perhaps they should be separate.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.