During Pitt’s season opener at Heinz Field on Saturday, both the Panthers and the visiting Austin Peay Governors stayed in their respective locker rooms until after the national anthem had been played, a change in protocol for the Panthers from years past.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Monday that the decision was made between him and his team’s leadership staff, and had more to do with there not being any fans in the stands than any kind of specific protest.
“We talked about it as a leadership council,” Narduzzi said. “There’s no fans out there. I don’t even think they’re going to play a national anthem. There’s nobody there. Are we going to go out there? Just kind of a team deal. Kind of common sense that there was nothing to do out there.”
Pitt had one player — backup kicker Ian Troost — kneel during the national anthem in 2017. They have not had individual or team protests since then. The team did wear helmet stickers with the hashtag #UntilWeUnite and white, brown and black raised fists on the backs of their helmets on Saturday.
Narduzzi came under criticism from current and former players this offseason for not wanting to publicly discuss the death of George Floyd and in general, with one former player saying that Narduzzi used the word “thug” to refer to black players. Narduzzi later said in a press release that he had learned from such missteps in the past.
“I want to address the word ‘thug’ and its use in our program,” he wrote. “Simply put, it’s not allowed. Last season, I learned how that word, and what it suggests, has changed. Through our regular discussions in our weekly players’ leadership council, our players shared their feelings on that word. Our program understands it will not be part of our vocabulary.”
Narduzzi hinted at the time that the team may have a social justice message or protest planned for the 2020 season. Several other regional teams have used their helmets as a space for social messaging. West Virginia took the field on Saturday with BLM stickers on their helmets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, while the Steelers will take the field on Monday night with the name of police shooting victim Antwon Rose, Jr. on the backs of their helmets.
With the teams still in the locker room on Saturday, The Star Spangled Banner was played over the Heinz Field public address system, though only some Pitt game-day staffers and the referees were on the field at the time.
The Pitt band, which typically plays the anthem before games, was not in attendance, as both they and any potential fans have been barred from attendance, at least through the end of September as the team attempts to remain in compliance with COVID-19 gathering restrictions implemented by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and health secretary Rachael Levine.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, which share Heinz Field with the Panthers, have adopted similar policies through the end of September. Steelers president Art Rooney II said he is hopeful to be able to include fans at some point this season.
Pitt did not respond to a pre-season interview request for athletic director Heather Lyke from Pittsburgh Sports Now.