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A Steeler’s Perspective on the 2017 NFL Protests and the 1987 Players Strike

Thirty years ago a volatile issue divided NFL players. Pittsburgh radio voice Tunch Ilkin, a Steelers lineman back then, talks about the parallels between the ’87 strike and the protests during the national anthem this year

On “The MMQB Podcast with Peter King” this week, former Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin, now the team’s radio color commentator, said the controversy surrounding the national anthem reminded him of the strike during the 1987 NFL season.

The collective bargaining agreement expired that year, and the NFLPA staged a walkout after the second week of the season. Ilkin and the majority of NFL players sat out the next three games, but a number of big names, including Steelers greats Mike Webster, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell, crossed the picket line to join the replacement players, dubbed “scabs” by the regulars.

Last week the Steelers captured the attention of the country when every player stayed out of sight for the anthem other than left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger. While the team’s decision was intended to save the players from having to choose whether to stand or kneel, it met with heavy backlash from some fans. The Steelers themselves seemed bemused. Villanueva afterward said he regretted that he “threw [his teammates] under the bus,” while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he’d wished the team had “approached it differently.” Center Maurkice Pouncey said the Steelers will stand this Sunday in Baltimore.

Here is some of the conversation between Ilkin and King about the similarities between ’87, when a volatile issue divided NFL locker rooms, and now:

Peter King: What do you recall about that time in 1987, and do you think it was at all similar to what these guys went through this weekend?

Tunch Ilkin: That was my eighth year, and our captains were John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Donnie Shell and Gary Dunn—four guys I dearly love and look up to and have always admired. Today I consider them my brothers. All four of those guys crossed the picket line. Webby called me, in tears, and said: “Tunch, I have to cross the picket line. This is my last year, and I’m afraid the strike is going to last the entire season.” He was physically and emotionally shook up when he called me. He kept apologizing, and I said, “Webby, I love you, you’re my man, but I don’t agree with you.”

I was really disappointed. When Gary Dunn, who I’m still close with, and John Stallworth and Donnie Shell—I mean I love those guys, but when they crossed the picket line, I was hurt by it, and I was worried that the rest of the guys were going to follow through. We hung out and hung together, had a show of solidarity, but I loved those guys, so there were no hard feelings when the strike ended. There was feeling in our friendships, as teammates. That’s why I think I understand what Mike [Tomlin] was trying to do—he was trying to keep unity and solidarity on the team.

King: What did you think of the decision by Villanueva to come out into the tunnel? Even though I’ve heard all the statements, and his are tinged with regret, he did break away from the team in some degree, which had to be really, really hard for him, I would imagine. What did you think of his decision?

Ilkin: Alejandro is a good man, and I talked to him this morning. He felt horrible about that, but he also felt like he had to stand, and I understand that … I understand Big Al wanting to be out for the national anthem, and so, as a teammate I would not have had a problem with that. I saw no problem with it.

He feels terrible because of the way it looked like his teammates didn’t have his back, how he was the only one, but that wasn’t the case. They were coming out with him, and then the logistics got messed up and it was only him. Nothing but respect and admiration for Big Al and his service to our country.

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