The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves under siege today in the aftermath of both a tough loss on the field and a significant blow off of it in the form of public relations, and no doubt their efforts to repair the damage of the latter will be viewed by many as a misstep.
The team held a players-only meeting today that was said to have lasted over an hour, following which their two mainstay captains, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive end Cameron Heyward, entered the conference room to speak to the media.
As has been the case with so much of what has happened over the course of the past couple of days, I do believe that what transpired today was initiated with good intentions, but I cannot say that those intentions matched the end result of their efforts.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t want to create division in the locker room or in the public eye by allowing players to choose to respond in whatever way they chose. Had he not stepped in, we probably would have seen some Steelers players kneeling or sitting during the anthem yesterday. That is just the facts.
Instead, he had his players attempt to reach a consensus response that would project and solidify a message of unit, but those optics failed when cameras captured war veteran and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva standing at the edge of the tunnel heading out to the field on his own.
The rest of the team—or at least much of the rest of the team—was stood back some 10 or more feet deeper in the tunnel, with the intention that they would be out of sight, but there are such things these days as cameras. The resulting optics of Villanueva standing away from his teammates has created arguably a greater backlash than had Tomlin never stepped in in the first place.
And the players’ comments today have not aided at all. Roethlisberger started out by breaking from the message of unity and stating his personal views that “the anthem is [never] the time to make any type of protest”, something that is obviously not a universally held view in the locker room.
He proceeded to intimate that Villanueva got “separated” from his teammates in that moment of “chaos”, as a small child wandering off from his parents in a crowd, calling it a “coincidence” that the lineman ended up away from his teammates.
Even if that were true, it will do little to salve the wound for those who were offended by the optics of the incident.
Tomlin’s intention, and the team’s, was to show unity with one another, but that doesn’t appear to have been the messaged that has been received by a significant portion of not just the fanbase, but the broader population exposed to the story.
In fairness to their efforts, they had a short turnaround between Sunday and the events that triggered the recent wave of ire, and so perhaps it is not a great surprise that there was much fumbling over how to handle it.
Roethlisberger said that the team will be out on the field for the remainder of the season, but it is yet to be determined what will happen while they are out there. They have a week to think about it. Let’s hope they at least manage to ‘project unity’ this time.