The Pittsburgh Steelers walked out to boos on Sunday in Chicago. And — in what we hope is the first and last time you'll see us write this — they deserved every one.
The team, in response to comments made last week by President Donald Trump, chose to stay in the tunnel during the national anthem. Only Alejandro Villanueva, a veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan, emerged slightly to stand with his hand over his heart.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, in comments before Sunday's matchup with the Chicago Bears, showed that the team approached the decision with the thoughtfulness and class that's been emblematic of the Steelers brand for decades:
“People shouldn't have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn't have to be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn't be separated from his teammates who choose not to. So we're not participating today. That's our decision.”
Tomlin's talking here about two things — principled unity and individual freedom — that are embodied by our flag and our national anthem. He's on the right track, but the result was an imperfect and offensive display that fell short of the high standards the team has lived by all these years.
Trump, despite being president, is not a symbol of our national identity. He's not the reason people stand with hands over their hearts and sing along as organizations pay homage to the flag — that's what actually symbolizes the things Americans have fought and died for centuries to protect and preserve.
Trump's Alabama rant was a deliberate provocation that elicited a desired response. And the Steelers, like every other NFL team that took the field on Sunday, fell for it. Shame on them for walking into such an obvious trap.
The team probably handled the situation with more grace than any other franchise in the league. But the juice simply wasn't worth the squeeze.
What would it have cost players and coaches to attend the anthem, pay their respects, and leave the political statements until after Sunday's game? Their pride? Could they not have shown unity, strength and support for Constitutional freedoms while participating in the anthem on Sunday?
The answer is undeniably: yes, they could have. And they should have.
They should have trusted that the team's stature as one of the league's most respected and professional operations would imbue that decision with gravitas. They should have trusted that Tomlin, a gifted and thoughtful leader, could have given proper voice to that course of action.
They should have trusted us, the fans, to understand they didn't need to use the Anthem and the flag to rebuke Trump's bizarre, unnecessary and immoral comments.
Perhaps there really is no better way to respond than what the Steelers did on Sunday. But we aren't convinced.