Steelers president Art Rooney II says he is proud of the way his players have expressed themselves when it comes to issues of social justice and reform, despite some controversy over the team’s decision to honor police shooting victim Antwon Rose, Jr. on their helmets during their season opener on Monday night.
The Steelers announced before the game that the team would unanimously be supporting Rose, who was 17 when he was killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer in 2018.
But during the game, Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva chose to instead wear the name of late U.S. Army sergeant Alwyn Cashe, who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for heroism while serving in Iraq.
After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin said he was aware of Villanueva’s decision to break from the team’s choice, but captains Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward said on Wednesday that they were surprised.
“He did discuss that with me,” Tomlin said. “This is in line with everything we said about participating in elements of social justice this offseason. As an organization and myself as a head coach of an organization, we are going to support our players in however they choose to participate and express themselves or to not participate or not express themselves. As long as they do so thoughtfully and with class. And so that is a blanket approach that we have had.”
“I did not know about Al’s choice for the back of his helmet,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, it’s his choice. That’s the amazing thing about the country we live in. Unfortunately, it is what it is.”
Thursday, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said that he was acting on limited information when he made the decision to support Rose and that going forward, he will be making his own choice about what to put on the back of his helmet.
“I was unaware of the whole story surrounding his death and what transpired during the trial following the tragedy,” Pouncey said. “I should have done more research to fully understand what occurred in its entirety.”
The officer killed Rose, Michael Rosfeld, was charged with criminal homicide and later acquitted. Rosfeld said he considered Rose and two others in the vehicle to be suspects in a drive-by shooting that happened earlier that day. Fellow passenger Zaijuan Hester later pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and four firearms charges in connection with that shooting.
Pouncey has a long history of working with law enforcement organizations, in his native Florida and in Pittsburgh.
On Thursday, Rooney reiterated Tomlin’s stance that the organization supports its players’ individualism and that the team will continue its effort to use its platform to enact social change.
“As an organization, we respect the decisions of each player, coach and staff members relating to how to express themselves on social justice topics,” Rooney wrote. “We will continue to support our social initiatives to fight against social injustice and systemic racism not only in our area, but around the country.
“Along the way, we understand if individually we may say or do things that are not universally excepted. There will be uncomfortable conversations. But we will strive to be a force for unity in our efforts to support a more just society.
“With our support, our players have and will support our communities to address these issues with tangible actions. Our players have done an amazing job and helping create social justice platforms that we have already begun participating in this year. But we know there is still work to be done. This season our primary focus is in terms of social justice funds and activities will be voter registration and awareness, community and police forums, and education and community investment.
“I am proud of the way our players have responded to the need for greater efforts to bring awareness and changes to combat racism and social injustice. I know they will continue to be leaders in our communities and their hometowns.”