The present-day Pittsburgh Steelers exist as a paradox. They have been led, for the last 11 years, by a black coach who was considered for the position in large part because of the Rooney Rule—a policy requiring NFL teams to interview minority candidates for coaching and upper-management positions. The rule is named after Dan Rooney—the now deceased longtime chairman of the Steelers—who was chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee when it was enacted. Rooney was also a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama, and Obama named him ambassador to Ireland in 2009.
Pittsburgh, however, is one of the least-diverse major metropolitan areas in the country. And while the city is strongly Democratic and attempts to convince itself that it’s progressive, the racial politics are not. Nowhere is this more prominent than with how Mike Tomlin is treated by a very loud and passionate segment of the Steelers’ fanbase, who call for Tomlin’s head each time the Steelers lose. Or perhaps just win by a single touchdown instead of two.
A glance through the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Steeler-related comments sections and Facebook posts is a view into racial dog-whistling and euphemism. The team is “undisciplined” and “ghetto.” The players need more “structure” and a coach who isn’t just one of their homies.
Tomlin, who has never had a losing season, regularly gets “outmaneuvered” by opposing coaches and also doesn’t quite understand how to manage the clock. I’ve even read the Steelers referred to as Obamaball before, which I guess is supposed to mean that all the players have free cellphones and health care? (Since I began writing this, the Steelers lost to the Bears in overtime. Please go to any Pittsburgh-related news site and read the comments there. You will not be disappointed.)
Anyway, as the country tuned in to the NFL Sunday afternoon to see how the teams would react to Darth Cheetos’ insults and taunts, the Steelers decided to stay in the locker room during the national anthem, an act that was roundly considered a clear repudiation of the president. But then, when asked to explain the decision, Tomlin said the following:
We’re not going to play politics. 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 have to 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. That’s our intent.
This reads and looks and sounds and smells like Tomlin pulled an #AllLivesMatter on us. The language is the same. The phrasing is the same. And the allusion to manufactured (and fabricated) unity and harmony is the same.
But, regardless of his words, the act itself still seemed like an unambiguous fuck-you to Donald Trump. The optic message was one of defiance, and that’ll be the prevailing takeaway from it. Tomlin is no fool, and I’m sure he knew how not participating in the anthem would look, which makes me wonder if his words were intentionally misleading—the same type of professional shape-shifting and racial judo that black people perform each day to defy the system while keeping our jobs and our sanity intact. This could have been a very advanced form of code-switching, and his statement could have been a performative wink to those of us who know.
But maybe it wasn’t! But maybe it was! Who knows? I just know I wouldn’t be surprised if I went out sometime after the season and saw Mike Tomlin rolling around the Burgh with a “U Bum” T-shirt on.