After 'divisive rhetoric,' Bears, Steelers say actions during national anthem show unity

As a giant American flag was unfurled across midfield Sunday at Soldier Field, Bears players lined up shoulder to shoulder on the sideline, many of them linking arms.

Across the field, the Steelers sideline was nearly empty.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and his assistants stood together at attention not far from a handful of officials. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva towered in the Steelers' entrance to the field, his helmet under his arm and his hand over his heart.

The rest of the Steelers remained out of sight in the locker room or tunnel, a decision the players made together Saturday after President Donald Trump on Friday night criticized players who have protested racial injustice during the anthem.

Bears and Steelers players framed their actions as showing solidarity with their teammates amid comments Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks called "divisive rhetoric" and cornerback Sherrick McManis called "disrespectful."

"The comments that were made about NFL players and the ownership, it was an attempt to divide us," Hicks said. "That's what it really felt like, and to tell us that we don't have the freedom to speak and to stand on whatever platform that we feel like and voice our opinions.

"We have great respect for our country, great respect for the flag, great respect for the anthem. We also want to show that we're unified. That was the best way to show that we hold all those things dear and we are American citizens."

Protests are not new this season. Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made national headlines last year when he opted not to stand during the anthem, and he remains unemployed amid the backlash.

But the protests came to a head Sunday as more than 100 players across the league knelt, sat or raised their fists after Trump said at an Alabama rally and in subsequent tweets that players should be fired or suspended for not standing and fans should boycott the NFL until they are reprimanded.

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired,'" Trump said at the rally. "You know, some owner is going to do that. He's going to say, 'That guy that disrespects our flag, he's fired.' And that owner, they don't know it … (but) they'll be the most popular person in this country."

The Bears had a conversation with Chairman George McCaskey on Saturday and decided locking arms showed unity without disrespecting the flag, coach John Fox said.

"What makes this the greatest country in the world are the liberties it was founded upon and the freedom to express oneself in a respectful and peaceful manner," McCaskey said in a statement Sunday. "Through important dialogue with our players and team, this divisive political situation has unified our franchise for the present and the future."

Tomlin said the Steelers players couldn't agree about how to handle their reaction on the field as one, and so "they chose to remove themselves from it." The Seahawks and the Titans also stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem Sunday.

Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said their decision was about respecting everyone's opinion and called on the players to continue making a difference in their communities off the field.

When the anthem finished Sunday and the Steelers ran onto the field, some fans booed and other twirled their yellow terrible towels to cheer them.

"We appreciate the troops," Heyward said. "We appreciate every policeman who goes out and risks their lives for us. But we also appreciate our fans and the people that lose their lives. For one person to call shame on multiple people, to say we should lose our jobs because we care, it's just not right."

Villanueva stood out as the lone Steelers player visible to the cameras during the anthem.

He is a former Army Ranger who served during three tours in Afghanistan before he pursued his NFL career, signing to be on the Steelers practice squad in 2014. He was unavailable for comment following the game, but several teammates said they supported his actions.

"By no means are we trying to limit anyone or restrict anyone on the team from having a voice, today, tomorrow, on social media, whatever platform they want to use," Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said. "But collectively before the game, we wanted to do something together."

ckane@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribKane

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