Reaction to Steelers’ Anthem Decision: How’d We Lose to the Bears?

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The Pittsburgh Steelers, except for one player, stood in the tunnel during the national anthem on Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

PITTSBURGH — The tradition for a fall Monday here is to engage in the true national — or at least regional — pastime: celebrating a Steelers’ win on Sunday or complaining about what in the world has gotten into the offense.

But this Sunday, like a breaking newscast in the middle of a tight game, in came politics: on the sideline and in the locker room and pretty much everywhere else.

If the ground under the N.F.L. shook from the national debate over race, patriotism, protest and the president, Pittsburgh might have in some ways felt like the epicenter. With teams across the country finding ways to respond to President Trump’s disparaging comments about the league and some players, the beloved Steelers took a drastic approach. As the national anthem played before their game in Chicago, the entire team, except for one player, stood inside the tunnel instead of standing on the sideline.

The town’s professional hockey team, the Penguins, meanwhile, confirmed that it would, in fact, accept an invitation to visit the White House as winners of last season’s Stanley Cup.

On TV news shows and online threads, where one must take a side on all matters, the teams’ divergent approaches made for electric and potentially divisive political drama. But here in the bar stools and diner booths, even widely varying opinions about the issues at the heart tended to come to one big question: When did everything have to get so political?

“What I want to know is why we gave up 23 points to the Bears; no one seems to be talking about that,” said Rose Morton, who on Monday was waiting for a train wearing a black Steelers T-shirt emblazoned with the words RINGS DON’T LIE and the dates of the Steelers’ six Super Bowl wins. “Football isn’t politics. Football is football.”

This was not the first time Pittsburgh had found itself thrown into a national political argument that it had not asked for. In early June, Trump announced his decision to pull out of the international climate agreement by explaining that he was elected “to represent the president of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” This grated here but also amused; the smoggy Steel City stereotype is almost humorously outdated in a city of self-driving cars and Google-shirted shoppers at Trader Joe’s.

But to start a debate within the sports teams — and the Steelers in particular, winners in the steeltown era and winners in the tech hub era, too — may cut deeper than a misbranding of the city’s economic base.

“The issues that are being discussed are absolutely critical to this nation,” said the mayor, Bill Peduto, referring to the racial inequity and police brutality highlighted by players who take a knee and Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army ranger and Bronze star recipient who was the sole Steeler to stand outside the tunnel for the anthem.

“But this just is a way of dividing us in one of the areas we have always been able to unite,” he said. “It should be that part of Pittsburgh that takes over our politics, not Washington politics taking over Pittsburgh.”

Many people here, both supporters and critics of Trump, saw the Penguins’ announcement as an innocuous if rather oddly-timed statement about keeping a tradition of White House visits. The team’s president, David Morehouse, worked in the Clinton administration, and one of its owners, Ron Burkle, is a well-known Clinton donor.

The Penguins’ Sidney Crosby carries the Stanley Cup after defeating the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the N.H.L. Finals in June.

“The N.H.L. is bipartisan,” said Joel Hollies, 34, a bartender sitting before a couple of empty Miller High Life bottles in a Penguin-festooned bar on the south side of town. “I bet Trump can’t name four players on the Pens.”

The conversation was almost exclusively about the Steelers, not only because the team’s decision was the one outside the norm but also because, among the city’s professional franchises, the Steelers are first among equals.

The fan base tends to be older than that of the Penguins’, said Gene Collier, a columnist for The Post-Gazette, in large part because the Steelers were very good long before the Penguins were very good, and the Steelers have now been good for decades (the Pirates, Pittsburgh’s major league baseball team, have had longer stretches of not being very good).

Steelers loyalty runs deep, but among some, this was tested by the team’s decision on Sunday. Some threatened to burn jerseys or junk season tickets.

“What they did really sickens me; it’s changed my opinion of them,” said Kristen Trosky, a bartender and lifelong Steelers fan who heard fans complain all day on Sunday. “It’s like if you’re invited to a wedding, and you’re not the same religion as the bride or groom. You still follow their customs and respect their traditions. It’s not up to you to voice your opinion there. And the tradition at football games is you stand up during the national anthem.”

Mr. Hollies found this unconvincing. The team had not injected politics into this past Sunday; the president had. In fact, Mr. Hollies said, echoing the comments by Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, by staying in the tunnel the team had been trying to avoid politics.

“The staying in the locker room is a nonissue, it’s just Trump supporters who think it’s the issue,” he said. “They support Trump more than they support the Steelers. It’s disgusting.”

This was not universally true. At an Eat’n Park diner south of the city, Bill Powers, a veteran, Steelers fan and Trump voter, explained that he did not like when players took a knee during the anthem.

But he also saw that Mr. Tomlin had a difficult matter to deal with while also maintaining player discipline and unity. Rather than have some players stand and some kneel on the sideline, it made sense to avoid the issue altogether.

“I wasn’t offended in any way,” Mr. Powers said. “It was a coaching call to keep the team focused.”

The real mystery, he went on, was why the president he voted for decided to pick a fight with the N.F.L. in the first place.

“What was he thinking?” Mr. Powers said. Then, possibly answering his own question, he added, “Sometimes he just doesn’t think.”

Reaction to Steelers’ Anthem Decision: How’d We Lose to the Bears?

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