On a day full of NFL players reacting to incendiary comments made by President Donald Trump, one particular image took hold among those opposed to the athletes’ peaceful protest during the national anthem: Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva standing by himself at the entrance to the tunnel, hand over his heart.
While Villanueva’s apparent solo display of patriotism garnered praise from the right — and sent his jersey sales skyrocketing — he said during a press conference on Monday that it hadn’t been his intention at all.
Villanueva told reporters that after the team made the decision to remain in the locker room while the anthem was played, he asked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger if he could stand in front, but went out too far while the rest of the team remained back in the tunnel.
“I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault, and my fault only,” Villanueva said. “We as a team tried to figure it out, but obviously butchered it.”
— ABC News (@ABC) September 25, 2017
Head coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday that the decision to have the players remain in the locker room was intended to remove the team from a tense situation and not pit players against each other or force them to choose a side. The other players wanted to accommodate Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, and several were surprised to see him standing outside the tunnel by himself, according to ESPN reporting.
Fox News’ Todd Starnes praised Villanueva for disobeying Tomlin’s directive and standing on the field alone. “I salute and honor Alejandro Villanueva,” Starnes wrote. “He demonstrated on Sunday that in the National Football League he is a man among boys, a hero among cowards.”
Villanueva sought to dispute that interpretation on Monday. “Unfortunately I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally,” he said. “Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself I feel embarrassed.”
He also emphasized that he is not opposed to players who sit or kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. “People that are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military, they’re not saying anything negative about the flag, they’re just trying to protest that there are some injustices in America,” he said.
Last season, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem as a way to draw attention to police brutality against people of color and other rampant racial injustices occurring in America. He continued that peaceful protest throughout the season and, after not one NFL team was willing to sign him in the offseason, a few other players continued what Kaepernick started.
The situation escalated sharply over the weekend, however, after Trump decided to wade in.
Speaking to a mostly white audience in Alabama, the president went after Kaepernick and the other athletes who have peacefully demonstrated during the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'” Trump said. He doubled-down on those comments on social media Saturday, sparking swift backlash from athletes and a much larger wave of protests across the league on Sunday.