As protests and demonstrations popped up all over the NFL following Donald Trump’s incendiary “sons of bitches” comments and his follow-up tweets, one image that was circulated by the anti-protest community was that of Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva standing by himself, hand over his heart, during the national anthem. The Steelers had decided as a team to stay in the locker room for the anthem–an initially strong choice watered down by coach Mike Tomlin’s assertion that it was just done to not force players into a decision of whether to kneel or not. Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, decided to not against his team and stand up for the anthem.
In the aftermath, which saw Villanueva’s jersey become one of the best-selling in the NFL, many took to social media to praise the 29-year-old for being a “model minority,” a Latino standing up for the flag when his fellow PoC players would not.
Only one problem: Villanueva is not, in any way, Latino. He is not an immigrant, either. He was born on a Naval base in Meridan, Mississippi to a Spanish Naval officer father and a Spanish mother. He is Hispanic, but not Latino, and he is not a person of color. These aren’t slights towards Villanueva’s decision to stand; these are just facts that are being twisted by those who see it as an insult to the flag, the country, the troops, and their own sensibilities. It is a way for those people to find a hero in the protests, one that they perceive as a minority standing up for their belief that the flag, piece of fabric that it is, is more important than protesting for racial equality and stricter checks on police brutality.
It’s likely that Villanueva had his own personal reasons for standing by himself; perhaps he does see the protests as disrespectful to the military, or perhaps he just has a connection with the flag and the anthem that he felt he needed to demonstrate before his team took on the Chicago Bears. Hell, even he has said since that he feels embarrassed for what he did, and for not sticking with his team. Whatever the reason, that Villanueva is being held up as a role model for an identity he does not even possess is further proof that the narratives around the kneeling protest are susceptible to being warped in order to favor the maintaining of the status quo.