Bears issue statement on President Trump’s comments; Steelers remain in locker room during anthem

The Bears and Steelers began their Week 3 game at Soldier Field after each team took a different stance during the national anthem. Bears players stood along their sideline, most of them with their arms interlocked in a show of unity. The entire Steelers team, with the exception of offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, remained in their locker room during the anthem. Villanueva, who served in the Army, stood near the northeast corner of the field with his hand over his heart. 

That was the response at Soldier Field to the firestorm that has swept through the sports world this weekend in the aftermath of sharp comments made by President Donald Trump, who blasted players who have chosen to engage in peaceful demonstration during the national anthem.

On Sunday morning, the Bears released a statement on the matter via chairman George McCaskey.

“The Chicago Bears are proud to support our players, coaches and all members of our organization to bring peace and unity together through football,” McCaskey 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. Through important dialogue with our players and team , this divisive political situation has unified our franchise for the present and the future.”

A report Sunday morning from CBS’ Jamie Erdahl indicated that the Steelers would remain in the locker room during the national anthem.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin explained his team's decision.

"We're not going to play politics," he said. "We're football players. We're football coaches. We're not participating in the anthem today. Not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from this circumstance. People shouldn't have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn't be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn't be separated from his teammate who chooses not to. So we're not participating today. That's our decision. We're going to be 100 percent. We came here to play a football game."

On Friday, in a lengthy harangue at a political rally in Alabama, Trump took direct shots at the NFL. He criticized rules changes designed to enhance player safety, saying they are “ruining the game.” Much more significantly, he blasted players who have chosen to demonstrate during the national anthem and called for team owners to terminate those who express themselves in that manner.

"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. "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."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded with a statement Saturday.

"The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture," Goodell said. "There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we've experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities."

By 10 a.m. Sunday morning, 16 NFL teams had issued some form of comment, acknowledging the President’s rants. The Bears were not one of them, indicating Saturday evening through a team spokesman, that they were deferring to Goodell’s Saturday comments.

But that stance changed Sunday morning with McCaskey’s statement.

In London, before the Jaguars-Ravens game on Sunday morning, representatives of both teams went to a knee with arms interlocked during the national anthem in a show of solidarity.

On Saturday, Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long expressed himself in a Tweet: “Taking freedoms away from Americans is un-American. Ain’t it?” Long said.

Safety Adrian Amos Tweeted: “All this hate in the world is nothing unusual… in the midst of it all remember that we all have to confess to the same God…Romans 14:11.”

If Trump’s initial comments in Alabama and on Twitter stirred controversy, the President’s rant did not stop Friday. On Saturday, he declared on Twitter that he was withdrawing an invitation for a White House visit to Stephen Curry and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

Trump fired back at Goodell via Twitter on Saturday.

“Roger Goodell of NFL just put out a statement trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country,” he wrote. “Tell them to stand!”

On Sunday morning, Trump was again on Twitter, saying “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”

In a later Tweet, he wrote: “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”

The NFL Players Association also weighed in with a statement from executive director DeMaurice Smith.

"The peaceful demonstrations by some of our players have generated a wide array of responses. Those opinions are protected speech and freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history. This expression of speech has generated thoughtful discussion in our locker rooms and in board rooms.

"However, the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just 'shut up and play.'

"NFL Players do incredible things to contribute to their communities. NFL Players are part of a legacy of athletes in all sports who, throughout history, chose to be informed about the issues that impact them and their communities. They chose -- and still choose today -- to do something about those issues rather than comfortably living in the bubble of sports. Their decision is no different from the one made by countless others who refused to let 'what they do' define or restrict 'who they are' as Americans."

dwiederer@chicagotribune.com

Twitter@danwiederer

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
59°