On Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, decided to ignore the rest of the team, which stayed in the locker room to protest President Trump’s comments that players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired, and stand in the tunnel leading out to the stadium with his hand over his heart for the playing of the national anthem.

When queried by a reporter at a post-game press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin expressed mild disappointment with Villanueva for not staying with his teammates, as it precluded “100% participation.” Tomlin seemed to be more concerned about the controversy over the anthem affecting his team’s performance than the controversy surrounding the anthem itself.

A reporter asked, “Was it your decision not to come out for the anthem? And what was your thinking with that?”

Tomlin replied:

No, it wasn’t my decision; like most teams in the National Football League, we didn’t ask for this. This was placed on us by circumstance. I heard rumblings of guys talking in the course of the day yesterday; my conclusion was that we would not allow politics to divide us; we’re football players; we’re a football team. If many of them felt like something needed to be done I asked them to discuss it, and whatever they discussed we’d have 100% participation or they’d do nothing. They just discussed it for an appropriate length of time; they couldn’t come to an understanding, so they chose to remove themselves from it.

They were not going to be disrespectful in the anthem, so they chose not to participate, but at the same time many of them were not going to accept the words of the president. So we decided to sit it out, to not take the field, to remove ourselves from it, to focus on playing football, so that is what are our intentions.

When a reporter noted Villanueva’s actions, Tomlin responded:

Like I said, I was looking for 100% participation, we were gonna be respectful of our football team. Man, these are divisive times in the United States and it’s a shame, but it is. But we’re not politicians; we’re coaches and professional athletes; if those of us who are individuals choose to participate in politics in some way, I’m going to be supportive of that. But when we come out of the locker rooms, we come out of the locker rooms to play football games.

To be quite honest with you, man, I didn’t appreciate our football team being drug into politics this way, and I’m sure that’s a global perspective. But, we’re blessed to do this for a living, and so with that blessings come responsibility; we understand that; we understand we’re given a platform that’s a unique one. Many of us are called to maybe do things that we wouldn’t normally do because of that platform where people apply pressure to us to do things because of that platform. And the bottom line is, we chose not to play ball today, in that regard. Maybe we will, but today we just said no.

After revealing that the team had alerted the league office that they would stay in the locker room for the anthem, Tomlin concluded, “Some of us have opinions; some don’t. We wanted to protect those that don’t, and we wanted to protect those that do. We came here to play a football game today.”

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