Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP

Steelers offensive lineman and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, who stood for the national anthem before Sunday’s game even though head coach Mike Tomlin had stated all his players would stay in the locker room to avoid making any sort of statement, said Monday that he deeply regrets how his action was interpreted.

Tomlin had said ahead of the game that his players would stay off the field during the national anthem, but that wasn’t the case when the pregame ceremonies unfolded. Villanueva found himself standing outside the tunnel with his hand on his chest during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and became a blank slate on which everyone could carve their messages.

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To a lot of conservatives, Villanueva performed an act of honorable disobedience, since Tomlin had said that the Steelers had reached their decision with the purpose of full participation. “Whatever we do, we’re going to do 100 percent,” Tomlin said. “We’re going to do it together.” The Steelers’ absence was less of a demonstration, and more of an attempt to avoid making any kind of statement. When asked after the game about Villanueva standing outside the tunnel, Tomlin cut off the question with a reply: “Like I said, I was looking for 100 percent participation. We were gonna be respectful of our football team.”

Ironically, the Steelers’ attempt to avoid scrutiny brought a significant amount of attention to Villanueva. Villanueva had the top-selling NFL jersey of the day. (This is particularly funny, given that the statement against the America-disrespecting NFL just gives the league and the players more money. Apparel sales are split evenly among all teams and all NFLPA members.)

Villanueva quickly became a hero in certain circles:

Villanueva was turned into a perfect symbol for the right: a military veteran who plays an unglamorous position and loves his country too much to kneel or sit during the anthem, no matter what his overpaid, ungrateful teammates wanted him to do. It no longer mattered that Colin Kaepernick’s reasons for kneeling during the anthem, an action initiated while Barack Obama was president, had nothing to do with Donald Trump or with the military. Instead, it became an issue of who loved The Troops and The Flag, and who disrespected them.

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(The NFL only exacerbated this issue after Trump made his “son of a bitch” remarks, spoiling the original cause by making it about President Brain Worms instead. It’s rightfully news when NFL owners, some of whom donated substantial amounts of money to Trump, join their players in demonstration, but did it really mean anything? They waited until the very last moment to make a move, when protesting had become expected and relatively safe. And against what, exactly? The theme of the weekend was division. Dividing what? United for what? No team’s statement save the Seattle Seahawks’ really specified. Shannon Sharpe eloquently said it, but though the intents of many of the kneeling or sitting players were aligned with Kaepernick, a lot of these pusillanimous owners did it for brownie points. Does any mentally functional person really believe Dan Snyder gives a shit about this beyond being perceived as chummy with the popular guys he pays to work for him? Jerry Jones got to be the center of attention; Roger Goodell got to plug a commercial for his league. Fuck them.)

Around the league, faced with the choice to kneel or stand and the burden of knowing that either choice would be perceived as a statement, locker rooms largely allowed players to make individual decisions. Some kneeled; some stood; some locked arms; and Julius Peppers removed himself completely. According to Steelers offensive lineman Chris Hubbard, the team quickly ruled out letting each player to do what he wanted. From PennLive:

Ben Roethlisberger introduced the players’ three choices, Hubbard said.

They could stand along the sideline holding hands.

They could stay off the field, which they did.

Or they could take the sideline with some players kneeling, some standing and some of the standing putting their hands on the shoulders of the kneeling.

“The mixed one, that really got eliminated,” Hubbard said.

That’s a shame, because most other teams did that, and while they may have received the expected opprobrium from flag-humpers, they were able to move past that and on to why they felt how they felt, if they chose to elaborate. In this scenario, Alejandro Villanueva would have been able to express his opinion just as players who wanted to kneel could have expressed theirs. Instead, the Steelers spent a whole lot of time on Monday clarifying and occasionally contradicting. Ben Roethlisberger used his personal blog to explain what the team’s absence was supposed to mean; Cam Heyward, James Harrison, and an anonymous source expressed confusion at Villanueva’s appearance; Heyward and Roethlisberger backed up their teammate; and Villanueva was forced to face the media. It was hard not to notice how a movement that began with a player explaining why he kneeled for the anthem had reached the point where a player was forced to explain why he stood for the anthem.

Villanueva said that after the Steelers decided they would stay off the field, he asked Roethlisberger and “the team leadership” if he could watch the performance from the tunnel. The QB said yes, and that team captains would be physically and figuratively behind him. Villanueva said he was in the tunnel on game day but walked out too far, into the cameras’ sight, and felt that he had to stay there while the anthem was played so it didn’t appear that he was walking away. The plan was “butchered,” and Villanueva regretted creating the image that his team had abandoned him, when he said it’s “quite the opposite.” A transcribed excerpt:

Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed to a degree, because again, like I said, unintentionally I left my teammates behind. It wasn’t me stepping forward. I never planned to boycott the plan that the Steelers came up with. I just thought that there was some middle ground where I could stay in the tunnel, nobody would see me, and then afterwards I just wouldn’t talk to the media like I do all the time.

[...]

You guys know me, for the guys that come into the locker room all the time, I hate attention. I don’t like it. I’ll give you guys cliches so you guys will leave me alone. But when it comes to this, it’s a difficult situation and I don’t like the attention and at the end of the day—the reason, whether I wanted it or not, whether it was my intended plan or not, the reason that I went out there by myself is the reason that is causing all this distress and is making the organization look bad, my coach look bad, and my teammates look bad. And for anybody who thinks that Coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America, or any one of my teammates, or the owner, I take offense to that.

Villanueva, who admitted that at first he was offended by Kaepernick taking a knee, stressed that he believed kneeling wasn’t disrespectful to the military or flag, and understood that it was about protesting injustice. He said in August that he wasn’t “in the business of convincing America to be more patriotic.” Because of sloppy execution and a desire to please everyone by doing nothing—instead of the simpler option of letting everyone express themselves—the Steelers created a mess, and Villanueva inadvertently turned into Marine Todd instead of a guy who respected everyone’s approach to the anthem and just wanted to do his own thing. Even though Villanueva later explained how he actually felt, the horse was out of the barn. Due to his military status, Villanueva’s presence was twisted by observers to serve their own ends. And just like with Pat Tillman, the truth had little to do with it.