PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers thought they had a plan for how to properly and respectfully make a public statement regarding social justice during their season opener against the New York Giants.
Someone called an audible. Multiple someones, actually, leaving the organization scrambling to fix the message ahead of its home opener on Sunday against Denver.
Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said Thursday the decision to put the name of a Black teenager shot in the back and killed by a white East Pittsburgh police officer on the back of each player’s helmet on Monday night was made by the front office and not the players.
“We knew we were going to have somebody on the back of our helmets and it wasn’t exactly clear on what it was going to be,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was mostly made by everyone upstairs.”
Nearly all the Steelers donned helmets bearing the name of Antwon Rose Jr. during their 26-16 victory. Rose died at 17 after being shot while running away from a police officer during a traffic stop shortly after the car Rose was in was spotted at the scene of a drive-by shooting.
Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate, instead taped over the plate honoring Rose and wrote down the name of Alwyn Cashe, a U.S. Army sergeant who died in 2005 from injuries sustained while on patrol in Iraq. The decision drew surprise from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, as well as support from center Maurkice Pouncey.
Pouncey, who works closely with law enforcement officials in both Pittsburgh and his native Florida, posted on Instagram Thursday that he “was given limited information” about using Rose’s name. Pouncey wrote he “inadvertently supported a cause of which I did not fully comprehend the entire background of the case.”
Going his own way is nothing new to Villanueva, who served three tours in Afghanistan before putting together an unlikely NFL career that’s seen him reach two Pro Bowls. In 2017, he stood for the national anthem at Soldier Field in Chicago while his teammates huddled in a nearby tunnel. Villanueva chalked it up to a miscommunication. There’s less wiggle room this time.
The confusion about how Rose’s story ended up being highlighted doesn’t exactly jibe with the team’s intent — stated by coach Mike Tomlin and defensive tackle and co-captain Cam Heyward among others — to present a unified message.
Still, Fitzpatrick is confident whatever happened on the field in New Jersey won’t be repeated and downplayed the idea it was symbolic of any problems in the locker room.
“I don’t think there’s any cohesion issues,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re all grown men. We all have one goal and that’s to win the Super Bowl and we’re able to put all that little stuff to the side.”
Team president Art Rooney II stressed in a statement that the organization respects “the decisions of each player, coach and staff member relating to how to express themselves on social justice topics.”
Rooney noted those actions might not always draw widespread praise.
“We understand that individually we may say or do things that are not universally accepted,” Rooney said. “There will be uncomfortable conversations. But we will strive to be a force for unity in our efforts to support a more just society.”
Fitzpatrick said he’s unaware of any plans to make another visible public statement before Denver (0-1) visits Heinz Field. The 23-year-old from New Jersey, who arrived via a trade with Miami a year ago Thursday, believes the Steelers will be “grown men” and set whatever political differences they might have aside.
“We all come from different places, different backgrounds, everything else like that but when we’re out on the field, we have the same goal, the same mindset and that’s to win a game at hand,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ll go out there in the locker room, be a team and work it out.”
NOTES: G David DeCastro (knee) and reserve OL Stefen Wisniewski (chest) missed practice for a second straight day. If neither can go against the Broncos, rookie Kevin Dotson will make his first NFL start at right guard. Dotson will play alongside right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who is the starter with Zach Banner done for the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee. … RB James Conner (ankle) was a full participant.
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