Alejandro Villanueva didn’t intend on becoming one of the symbols of the national anthem protests in the NFL.
Yet a week after the typically low-keyed tackle was the only Pittsburgh Steelers player to participate in the national anthem before a game at Chicago, Villanueva vented about being used as a tool.
“I’m tired of the cameras in my face all the time,” Villanueva said after a 26-9 victory against the Baltimore Ravens. “It’s crazy. It’s sad, because we had the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game and everybody is focused on the pregame procedures.
“I thought the team tried their best last week and this week to handle this week, but unfortunately, we don’t always get it right.”
If there’s any player in the NFL you’d expect to see honoring America during the anthem, it’s Villanueva, a third-year pro who was previously an Army Ranger. He served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor.
But controversy was ignited when the Steelers decided not to participate in the anthem before their Week 3 game, and Villanueva wound up being the only player to break those ranks — albeit unintentionally.
He later explained that a communication mix-up separated him from the team, but he surely has nothing to explain. While several NFL players are protesting social justice issues, to expect Villanueva to do anything less than salute the anthem is beyond bizarre.
Still, Villanueva didn’t like seeing images of himself pitted against Steelers coach Mike Tomlin as part of the debate over the protests.
“To use me as a tool to push an agenda and push message is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Asked to assess how the Steelers – who all stood on the sideline for the anthem on Sunday, without any protesters – handled the issues in the week after returning from Chicago, Villanueva said, “You can’t put a grade or it was good or bad, because there’s a lot of feelings in this debate. There’s a lot of points of view. There’s a lot of miscommunication from the media and with the players here. I love my teammates. I love the organization, coach Tomlin, and the offensive line. I enjoy being a Steeler. We did the best we could.”
Villanueva noticed the booing directed at Ravens players as they knelt together before the anthem in a silent prayer for America. The team described the act as an embrace of kindness, unity, equality and justice.
“At this point, the whole kneeling or standing up is a much bigger issue than what we’re asking for as a league,” he said. “We’re trying to be conscious of social issues. We’re also trying to be respectful of the flag. How it’s being demonstrated is taking a much larger stage than the actions on the field. I respect every single player in the NFL. Every single citizen has their rights. I am not into the politics of the game. I’m just a football player.”