As rhetoric about the national anthem’s place in protests divides Americans, conservative media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News are framing the conversation around their own Colin Kaepernick: Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva.
The Steelers remained in the locker room Sunday during “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a team protest. But Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, was the lone Steelers player to stand for the anthem in public, hand on his chest. On Monday Fox reported that his jersey sales had “sky-rocketed” over at Fanatics.com; Fox News star Tomi Lahren tweeted support for Villanueva as well.
— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) September 25, 2017
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) did the same:
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
The remarks come a year after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the anthem to protest racial inequality and police violence against the Black community. Now the right has a symbolic totem for its version of respecting the flag.
Fox News also suggested there was a rift between Villanueva and his coach Mike Tomlin, wusing a blanket postgame statement as a sign that the two were at odds.
“I was looking for 100 percent participation,” Tomlin told reporters after Pittsburgh’s overtime loss to Chicago.
He didn’t mention Villanueva by name, and Tomlin himself stood for the anthem.
“We’re not politicians. We’re coaches and professional athletes… If those of us or individuals choose to participate in politics in some way I’m going to be supportive of that. But when we come out of locker rooms, we come out of locker rooms to play football games,” Tomlin added.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) September 25, 2017
Villanueva has clashed with Kaepernick over his flag protests but has spoken in support of speaking out against police brutality.
“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 told ESPN last year. “You can’t do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country.”
Update 6:28pm CT, Sept. 25: Villanueva apologized for standing during the anthem on Monday.
“I made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only. I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only,” he told Sports Illustrated.
He said that his observing of the anthem came amid backstage confusion and he did not mean to be the only Steelers player observing the anthem.