After the Steelers announced Monday morning that their “players and coaches united as one to wear a single name on the back of their helmets and hats for the entire 2020 season,” offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva called an audible. During the Steelers’ season-opening game Monday evening against the New York Giants, the military veteran covered up Rose’s name with tape and replaced it with the name of a fellow soldier, Alwyn Cashe, who died in Iraq in 2005 while trying to help in a rescue attempt.
Among the gestures the NFL is making this season toward issues of social justice is allowing players to choose helmet decals honoring victims of systemic racism. “When you think about Antwon Rose’s story, we don’t want to ever let his legacy go away,” defensive end Cameron Heyward, a Steelers team captain, said recently.
Rose, a Black 17-year-old, was killed when he was shot three times in the back while he and another teen fled a White police officer in East Pittsburgh, Pa., in June 2018. They had been passengers in a car that was pulled over because it fit the description of a vehicle involved in a drive-by shooting minutes earlier. The officer who fired the shots, Michael Rosfeld, was acquitted the following year on an open count of homicide after a four-day trial. Jury foreman Jesse Rawls Sr., a 72-year-old Black man, subsequently said that he and others on the panel found plausible Rosfeld’s claim that he saw Rose or his companion make a movement that the officer thought might have been the raising of a gun. No weapon was found on Rose, but police said they found an empty magazine in his pocket that matched a pistol found in the car.
The other teen who fled, then-17-year-old Zaijuan Hester, pleaded guilty last year to five felonies and two misdemeanors in connection with the drive-by shooting that preceded Rosfeld’s traffic stop.
Saying that his “work with police, both in Pittsburgh and back home in Florida, is well documented,” Pouncey wrote Thursday, “I was unaware of the whole story surrounding [Rose’s] death and what transpired during the trial following the tragedy.”
“I take responsibility for not doing more investigating into something that is sensitive to the community and his family,” he added, “but it is a lesson learned as it relates to political issues that occur every day in our society.”
After Villanueva altered his helmet, Rose’s mother reportedly wrote on Facebook, “I have nothing against vets and absolutely appreciate everything that they have done and continue to do for us. But this one person showed us exactly who he is and obviously he didn’t approve of how the [Steelers'] vote turned out. … They came to me as a team/organization and I don’t care how good of an individual you are; if you are not a TEAM player then maybe you are playing for the wrong team!!!”
In comments that had been published Monday on the Steelers’ website, Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, said her son “had a different relationship with the police than most kids” because she had worked at a police department and her father was an officer for 35 years.
Heyward said, via the team website, “The work [Rose’s] mom is doing to better the community and improve police relations in the community is awesome. We want to show we are with her as she continues to deal with this. … We know there are great people who are police and are involved in their communities. But all we can do is try to improve that.”
On Wednesday, Heyward said he was “surprised” by Villanueva’s decision, but added that “in this country, we’re given the freedom to do and support those that mean a lot to us.”
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger offered a similar take, telling reporters, “I did not know about Al’s choice for the back of his helmet. That’s his choice. That’s the amazing thing about the country we live in. Unfortunately, it is what it is.”
Pouncey, whose 11 years in Pittsburgh make him the team’s second-longest-tenured player behind Roethlisberger, added in his post, “Make no mistake, I am against racism and I believe the best thing I can do is to continue helping repair relationships between the police and their communities. Systemic racism issues have occurred in our country for too long, and that needs to stop. My focus will continue to be on helping the police in our communities, and I will support making any necessary changes to help those efforts.”
Pouncey created headlines in 2017 when he publicly opposed the demonstrations other NFL players were making during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
“I promise you one thing: This week we’ll all be standing out there for the national anthem, trust me,” Pouncey said at the time. “We respect our flag and respect the military and everything that’s a part of it.”
In June — several weeks after sharing a video that showed him operating a boat adorned with a “Trump 2020” flag — Pouncey appeared to have changed his thinking. He told a Pittsburgh radio station that “a lot of us were wrong” in 2017.
“People need to understand it’s about police brutality. When people are saying it’s about the army and the flag, it’s just not right,” Pouncey said. “Times are changed now, and people are seeing some of the true colors of America.”
After Pouncey posted his comments Thursday, Steelers’ team president Art Rooney II issued a statement in which he said, “As an organization, we respect the decisions of each player, coach and staff member relating to how to express themselves on social justice topics. 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 that individually we may say or do things that are not universally accepted. There will be uncomfortable conversations. But we will strive to be a force for unity in our efforts to support a more just society.”
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