A Catch-22 is a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

That’s what the NFL and Steelers find themselves in now when it comes to the playing of the national anthem before games.

If they kneel or protest in any way, some fans will criticize them for it. If they don’t do any kind of protest, other fans will criticize them for not taking a stance.

It’s a situation in which the league and its teams can’t win.

It’s already started on social media. When Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced last Tuesday he and the organization would support the players in whatever it is they decide to do, some people immediately stated they wouldn’t watch if the Steelers did something, regardless of what it might be.

“We spend a lot of group time talking about the ongoing issues, talking about the platform that they have and how to best utilize it, how to do so thoughtfully,” Tomlin said on a Zoom conference call with reporters. “Our position is simple: We are going to support our players and their willingness to partake in this, whether it is statements or actions.

“Statements are good, but impact is better. Particularly long-term impact. All that we ask is whatever it is that they say and do, they do so thoughtfully, and they do with class.”

Tomlin is in a particularly tough situation. He’s the longest-tenured Black head coach in the NFL and one of just four minority head coaches. He supports issues on equality and always has.

But he also doesn’t make it the centerpiece of everything he does. When the Steelers stayed in the tunnel as a team in 2017 in Chicago, with the team getting separated from Alejandro Villanueva, who was the only player visible while the anthem played that day, Tomlin and his coaching staff were at midfield, hats in hands.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the issues of minorities. He’s the father to three children. He certainly wants a better life for them. But he’s also the face and chief spokesman for the Steelers. And he sees a difference in this situation, where the dialogue has taken place in the offseason, as opposed to what happened in 2017, when everything was coming to a head a few weeks into a season.

The Steelers never had a single player kneel during the anthem. They attempted to make a statement as a team – by staying out of the spotlight and refusing to be used as a pawn – and it backfired on them because the team was separated from Villanueva by a Play-60 flag crew coming off the field.

This time is different. They’ve had time to have frank discussions.

“A lot of the things that occurred in 2017 transpired in the midst of our journey that is our season,” Tomlin said. “Our focus is different. The amount of time that you have to give to non-football things is different. The timeliness of this from an offseason perspective allowed us to really unearth some discussions and take our time and not be concerned about time as a factor as it related to those discussions, so it made it very different.”

It’s a true Catch-22 situation and one for which they should just do what they think is right and let the chips fall where they may.

The league, of course, could help its teams with the situation. It could either tell teams to stay in the locker room during the anthem if there are fans in the stadium to hear it. Or, it could just stop playing the anthem before every game.

Players used to stay in the locker room during the anthem until a little more than 10 years ago. Then, the league began taking money from the U.S. armed forces to wrap itself in the flag and promote patriotism.

That’s not its job.

Prior to World War II, the anthem wasn’t played at every sporting event – only the special ones: the World Series, the Olympics.

Do we really need to play the anthem at every sporting event from pee wee football games to the NFL? How many times has a mockery been made of the song because it’s heard so often?

Who can forget Rosanne Barr‘s mocking rendition? Or Carl Lewis butchering the song? Or fans in the Baltimore area saying “Os” in unison and not referring to the song but the baseball team? Or fans in Kansas City saying in unison, “Chiefs,” instead of home of the brave at the end of the song? Or countless other singers bastardizing the song trying to show off their range with some vocal gymnastics, making it all about them than about the song and what it’s supposed to represent?

Let’s not pretend the anthem is some kind of sacred song that is treated as such in every venue. Look around the stands the next time it’s played. There’s a healthy portion of people not paying attention.

It’s been played so often in this country that it’s taken for granted. It’s been made not special because we have played it so often.

The coolest moments are watching the Olympics and hearing the anthem played and seeing the tears in the eyes of the athletes as they stand atop the podium.

But by playing the anthem every time somebody rolls a ball out onto the field, we’ve cheapened its impact.

So, you want to deweaponize the anthem so as not to tick off a portion of the fanbase? Stop playing it or tell the players to stay in the locker rooms if you do.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

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