Before Sunday’s game between the Steelers and the Chicago Bears, the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t on the field as the anthem was played at Soldier Field in Chicago. But Villanueva stood in a tunnel leading to the field with his hand over his heart.
Once the Steelers did take the field, they were loudly booed by the Chicago crowd as their absence was seen as another act of defiance.
Since then, Villanueva, who’s an Army veteran and a Bronze Star Medal recipient, has become something of a folk hero to those who have taken offense to the protests.
As the debate raged and images of Villanueva standing, apparently by himself, during the anthem circulated, Villanueva’s jersey shot to the top of NFL jersey sales.
Ironically, this comes a year after Colin Kaepernick’s jersey became a top-seller last year when he started his on-the-field protests. Kaepernick later said he’d donate all the proceeds from his jersey sales.
I want to thank everyone who has shown me love and support, it truly means a lot! I wasn’t expecting my jersey sales to jump to number one because of this, but it shows the people’s belief that we can achieve justice and equality for ALL! The only way I can repay you for the support is to return the favor by donating all the proceeds I receive from my jersey sales back into the communities! I believe in the people, and WE can be the change!
But — surprise! — there’s much more going on here than appears on first glance.
First, Villanueva was not alone in the tunnel. The rest of the Steelers were in the tunnel, too, many standing with hands over the hearts during the anthem as well.
As to the issue of why Villanueva was standing in front of the rest of the team, that’s where things get a bit more thorny.
According to ESPN, Villanueva, citing his background as an Army Ranger, intended to stand during the anthem but didn’t want to be singled out if his teammates were kneeling, so the team, as a whole, decided to stay off the field as a compromise.
When Villanueva was seen standing in front of them for the anthem, some of his teammates were taken aback. James Harrison said, “We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously. But I guess we weren’t.”
On Monday, Villanueva addressed the issue, saying he didn’t expect he would be visible from where he stood. He also apologized to his teammates: “Unfortunately, I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally.”
Villanueva added he’s “embarrassed” by the photo and said the situation was “my fault only,” insisting that there was no division between he and his teammates.
Further complicating the narrative, Villanueva was initially critical of Kaepernick’s decision to sit or kneel during the anthem as his form of protest, even as he tried to show support to Kaepernick’s overall intentions:
“I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay,” Villanueva said. “You can’t do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country.”
A year later, though, Villanueva seemed more supportive of the method of protest, voicing support in his press conference following Sunday’s incident:
“What people don’t understand is people who are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military. They’re not saying anything negative about the flag,” Villanueva said.
“They’re just trying to protest the fact that there is some injustices in America. And for people that stand up for the national anthem, it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in these racial injustices; they’re just trying to do the right thing.”
In the end, Villanueva’s attempt to bring nuance to an issue that’s so hotly debated has only resulted in a heaping dose of irony — even as he tries to defend his teammates’ right to protest, he’s become a symbol for those who call for those rights to be curtailed.
WATCH: President Obama’s take on the Colin Kaepernick anthem controversy