Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday denounced protests taking place during the national anthem, but did not go so far as to side with President Donald Trump on the matter.
In a statement, Rauner, who is part-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said he "strongly" disagrees "with those who disrepect our flag and our anthem."
"To me they are disrespecting the foundations of our country, the veterans who risked their lives for our democracy, and the men and women who fight every day and make the ultimate sacrifice to defend our liberties," the statement read. "I personally cannot and will not condone such behavior. That said, our country is great because it guarantees freedom of expression, so people can choose to be disrespectful.”
While in part aligning with Trump's stance on recent NFL protests, Rauner's comments appear to stray from the president's remarks when it comes to disciplining those who protest.
For three days, Trump has drawn criticism from the worlds of politics and sports for saying that football players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now. Out! He's fired,'" Trump said at a rally in Alabama.
His comments sparked a firestorm of criticism from several angles, with professional athletes across multiple leagues, NFL owners and even league Commissioner Roger Goodell joining in a chorus to call Trump's remarks "divisive" and "disrespectful." [[447380073, C]]
Statement from Owner Steve Bisciotti. pic.twitter.com/bdKWJ4UpCy— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 24, 2017
The Pittsburgh Steelers remained in the locker room while members of the Chicago Bears stood locked arm-in-arm during the national anthem ahead of Sunday's game at Soldier Field.
"We're not going to play politics," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told CBS ahead of the game. "We're football players, we're football coaches. We're not participating in the anthem today - not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from the circumstance." [[447410943, C]]
One member of the Steelers did choose to stand for the anthem Sunday despite his team's decision, as offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva - a former Army ranger - stood just outside the players' tunnel with his hand over his heart.
The Chicago Bears initially remained quiet on the issue, deferring to Goodell's statement Saturday, but chairman George McCaskey issued a response Sunday, ahead of the game against the Steelers and after Trump doubled down on his remarks in a series of early-morning tweets.
"The Chicago Bears are proud to support our players, coaches and all members of our organization to bring peace and unity together through football," he said.
"What makes this the greatest country in the world are the liberties it was founded upon and the freedom to express oneself in a respectful and peaceful manner. Through important dialogue with our players and team, this divisive political situation has unified our franchise for the present and the future."
At the first football game of the day in London, at least seven members of the Baltimore Ravens and more than a dozen Jacksonville Jaguars took a knee during the anthem as the other players stood with arms locked together.
The rest of the day's games saw more protests, with the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans later joining the Steelers in remaining in their respective locker rooms as a team during the anthem before their game.
Even Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan addressed the controversy.
The Charlotte Hornets owner told the Charlotte Observer in a statement "one of the fundamental rights this country is founded on was freedom of speech, and we have a long tradition of nonviolent, peaceful protest."
"Those who exercise the right to peacefully express themselves should not be demonized or ostracized," the statement read. “I support Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA, its players and all those who wish to exercise their right to free speech.”
Protests of this nature started when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, then kneeled, for the playing of the anthem beginning in Aug. 2016 to call attention to the oppression of minorities across the United States.
Kaepernick's actions sparked a national conversation that several other NFL players have joined, protesting on multiple occasions and continuing even after Kaepernick became a free agent at the end of the season.
Soldier Field was the site of one such demonstration last September, when members of the Philadelphia Eagles raised their fists in the air during the anthem ahead of their game against the Bears.