Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva had somewhat of an anxious week after he found himself right in the center of the spotlight that was shone on the NFL last Sunday as a reaction to the many teams who participated in—or tried not to participate in—protests around the league during the national anthem.
A decorated Army Ranger, the third-year veteran told the team leadership that he would like to stand in a position where he could see the flag during the anthem and was told that the team would be behind him, but a pre-game celebration that was coming off the field at the same time between himself and the rest of the players prevented them from meeting him until after the anthem had already begun.
This created the negative optics that drew national attention and slanted headlines around the country, some insinuating that he ‘defied’ the team’s directive, others suggesting that the team ‘threw him under the bus’. Still more suggested that his head coach criticized him.
Villanueva was unhappy with the reactions and said that he felt embarrassed by the appearance of separation from his teammates in the images published nationwide, which prompted him speak to the media for 15 minutes on Monday, giving his version of the events and answering questions.
That only led some to believe that the team forced him to ‘apologize’, even while Mike Tomlin in his own press conference later specifically said that he did not know why Villanueva apologized, and that he had nothing to apologize for.
He was having none of it after yesterday’s game. As you might imagine, he was still fielding questions about the event that catapulted him into having the fastest-selling jersey in the league. “To wake up in the morning and see the face of coach Tomlin and the face of a soldier pitted against each other is completely unacceptable – from the media”, he told reporters, according to Jeremy Fowler.
“I love my teammates, I love Coach Tomlin, I love this organization and I love coming to work”, Villanueva said. The same people who have exalted him and put his jersey on the top of the list are also the same people who have prompted him to have to address the media about the topic and correct inaccurate accounts of what had occurred and put him in a difficult situation.
He went on, using even harsher teams for the media, saying, “to use me as a tool to push agendas and push messages is completely unacceptable”. He was expecting not to be a story at all, yet he has been the center of attention for the past week—the opposite of what he wanted.
I can’t help but wonder if we saw some of his frustrations manifest itself on the field yesterday when he committed a foolish personal foul in the second quarter after a first-down run from the Ravens’ 12-yard line.
After some altercation with Kamalei Correa, he uncharacteristically headbutted the linebacker, drawing a 15-yard penalty. Combined with the four-yard loss on the play, that made it second and 29. It seems the only way to crack the discipline of an Army Ranger is to use his stature as a veteran to try to score political points.