PITTSBURGH -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday addressed the team's national anthem display before Sunday's loss in Chicago -- in which Tomlin stood on the sideline, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva stood in front of the tunnel and the rest of the team was inside the tunnel -- saying he was unfazed.
"I'm like Mike Gundy. I'm grown. I'm 45. Nobody's making me do anything," Tomlin said, invoking the Oklahoma State football coach. "I love what I do. When I step into the stadium, I'm there to do the job. I feel passionate about a lot of things. I'm active in my community. I want to help as many people as I can help. I want to utilize this platform for good. My track record speaks for itself in that regard. But I do it in my free time."
Tomlin opened his weekly news conference explaining his role in the Steelers' pregame setup at Soldier Field and how the team meant no disrespect to the American flag by staying off the field. Tomlin told team members Saturday night to be united in whatever they decided, understanding that President Donald Trump's comments -- "those SOB comments," he clarified -- would affect some players.
The Steelers decided to stay in the tunnel as a way to remain nonpolitical, he said, protecting players who didn't want to demonstrate or protest. He called the perception the Steelers are unpatriotic "wrong." He said the fact that Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, felt responsible for creating perceived division by standing alone for the anthem was "a shame."
Owner Art Rooney II issued a statement Tuesday morning noting a similar sentiment, saying, "The intentions of Steelers players were to stay out of the business of making political statements by not taking the field. Unfortunately, that was interpreted as a boycott of the anthem -- which was never our players' intention."
Villanueva said Monday that he threw his teammates "under the bus, unintentionally" by stepping too far onto the field after a miscommunication regarding where he should stand and the positioning of his teammates. Tomlin said Villanueva told him pregame he wanted to get a better vantage point of the flag for the anthem. Tomlin said Villanueva had "nothing to apologize for."
The team is socially conscious but prefers to demonstrate away from the field, Tomlin said.
"These guys are football players, man. They don't take to politics. All they largely want to do, man, is kick that ball off and play," Tomlin said. "But things are happening around them that apply pressure to them. Whether they feel like they are being goaded and that's your perception, or there's another perception that those who oppose some of his statements are applying pressure to players to demonstrate. I'm opposed to both factions to be quite honest with you.
"I'm an advocate for players. I'm an advocate for those who simply want to do their jobs. Everybody's got opinions. Everybody's entitled to an opinion. That's what makes this country great. It's nothing wrong with that. We just believe there's a place and time for it. The place and time for us has been in our free time."
As the questions about the weekend's events persisted, Tomlin continued to focus on issues on the field. When Tomlin eventually got a football-specific question about 15 minutes into the news conference, he said, "Yes! Thank you, sir."
"You're asking us about middle ground; you're asking us about right or left -- we're a football group. That's what you guys don't understand: We don't care, largely or professionally speaking," Tomlin said. "We have personal opinions, yes. Professionally, we're about to kick a ball off. You guys ever thought to wonder what's going through a man's head as he stands there respectfully and listens to the anthem? He's probably thinking about a myriad of things that's going to happen when that ball kicks off. If you ask him after the game who did the anthem, they probably couldn't tell you. Did anybody ever think about that?"
Tomlin said he did not tell his team he would be on the sideline during the anthem. The sideline was largely empty save the four coaches. He called his intentions "irrelevant."
"I had a job to do. I have to coach a football team," he said. "There are a lot of things going on pregame. I don't play politics."
With anthem protests around the league gaining steam, Tomlin made clear that he thinks divisions arise when players feel forced to choose sides.
"People are using us in these circumstances for their benefit. We've resisted," Tomlin said.