If there is one photo of Sunday’s various NFL protests that has both galvanized the discussion and become a viral sensation, it is the one of Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle, standing alone with his hand over his heart during the National Anthem. Villanueva is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a three-time combat veteran, and a former Army Ranger. I had the pleasure of meeting Alejandro before he wore the Steelers’ black and yellow or the tan beret of the Rangers. When I met him, he wore Cadet Gray. Even then, you could tell the measure of that man. The only thing larger than the 6 ft. 9 in. 320-pound giant is his strength of character.

Hero turned Pro Footballer

Villanueva played football at West Point for the Army Black Knights as a left tackle, defensive lineman, and wide receiver. He tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals after going undrafted in 2010. He did not make the team and resumed his military commitment.

He graduated from the United States Military Academy with a commission as a second lieutenant in the Infantry and attended Infantry, Airborne, and Ranger school before serving with the 10th Mountain Division. Alejandro deployed to Afghanistan as a rifle platoon leader.

After being informed of Taliban presence in a nearby village, Villanueva and his men spoke to a village elder upon arriving and finding no Taliban. They were ambushed. Three of his men were wounded: Specialist Martin Piggott, Sergeant Roy Dutton, and Private 1st Class Jesse Dietrich. Alejandro pulled Dietrich into an alley and then a mosque to the unit medic. Returning to the fight, Villanueva checked back on his wounded men only to realize they needed to move to a safer location. Villanueva led the three to a nearby school, carrying Piggott on his shoulders, where they awaited a MEDEVAC. PFC Dietrich died a short time after Villanueva lifted him into the helicopter. Lieutenant Villanueva received the Bronze Star with “V’ device for his actions. He deployed two more times with the 1st Ranger Battalion.

Villanueva attended a regional NFL combine in 2014 and signed by the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive end. Though he was cut from the team later that year, he was picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moved to offensive tackle, he improved his skills over the next two years and signed a four-year, $24 million contract with the Steelers in 2017.

National Anthem Controversy

Our readers are well aware of the various protests within the NFL this past Sunday. Although the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to stay in the locker room during the anthem, Alejandro Villanueva stood in the tunnel at attention with his hand over his heart. The photo has gone viral, and his actions became the topic of wide discussion on both sides of the issue. Many have taken it as Villanueva standing out against protesters and have lionized him as part of their cause. The Steelers were protesting and hiding, but this American hero did not! Soon after the photo went viral, his was the top-selling jersey in the NFL.

Alejandro’s press conference tells a different story. The team could not agree on what to do, what message to send, and so they decided to stay in the locker room to avoid the protest situation entirely. Alejandro was in a tight spot. He had deep moral convictions and wanted to honor the flag, but wanted to support the team’s decision. He approached team leadership about a middle ground solution. He would stand in the tunnel, out of sight, to honor the flag without sending mixed messages from the team. His team captains were to stand directly behind him, showing their support. As a flag from a previous celebration was coming off the field, it separated Villanueva and the team captains. Once the anthem began, neither party wished to move and show disrespect. In the wider angles of a not-as-famous photo, the team captains can be seen in the background.

Villanueva apologized, not for standing for the flag, but for the second and third order effects that followed. Citing the devout patriotism of the team and coaches, he apologized for making it appear as if he and his team were not on the same page and that, inadvertently, a message was sent that none involved intended. When answering questions, Alejandro provided refreshing nuance to the kneeling debate:

“That’s the thing people need to understand when it comes to the national anthem. And I was one of the first ones who took offense when Colin Kaepernick took a knee. I was one of the first ones who did an interview and, to a certain degree, I never criticized but I didn’t agree with it. People don’t understand, but the people who are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military, not saying anything negative about the flag. They’re just trying to protest the fact that there are some injustices in America. And for people to stand up for the national anthem, it doesn’t mean they don’t believe in these racial injustices, they’re just trying to do the right thing.”

The Takeaway

Whether you have a distaste for the anthem kneeling or not, doing so is protected speech under the First Amendment. That protection, however, is from the government not private enterprise.  It is the league and its owners who set and enforce the rules in this case.  And failing to stand for the anthem is a violation of league rules.  At the same time, forced patriotism is the worst kind. When people like Villanueva joined the military and swore their oaths, it was not to the flag, to the government, or to the country. It was to the U.S. Constitution. The men and women of the military fight for the Constitution of the United States.

It is true that unpopular speech is the kind that needs the most protection. Even when we find the speech or a manner of speaking distasteful, we should at least look at the intentions and reasons behind it. When we attribute our narratives onto an individual, be it someone kneeling or someone standing, we lose the ability to have actual discourse.  There is danger in appearing hypocritical when we attack ANTIFA for shutting down conservative speakers while, in the same breath, doing the same to those with whom we disagree.


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Military Affairs Correspondent