Steelers player has top-selling NFL jersey after standing for anthem, but his story isn't what you think

It's not surprising that, as the tense debate about NFL players actions during the national anthem at games continues, some stories are getting a bit fussed up. 

Such is the case of Pittsburgh Steelers player Alejandro Villanueva.

More from Mashable: Tom Brady breaks his silence, criticizes 'friend' Donald Trump's NFL comments

Before Sunday's game between the Steelers and the Chicago Bears, the Pittsburgh Steelers weren't on the field as the anthem was played at Soldier Field in Chicago. But Villanueva stood in a tunnel leading to the field with his hand over his heart.

Once the Steelers did take the field, they were loudly booed by the Chicago crowd as their absence was seen as another act of defiance.

Since then, Villanueva, who's an Army veteran and a Bronze Star Medal recipient, has become something of a folk hero to those who have taken offense to the protests. 

As the debate raged and images of Villanueva standing, apparently by himself, during the anthem circulated, Villanueva's jersey shot to the top of NFL jersey sales

Ironically, this comes a year after Colin Kaepernick's jersey became a top-seller last year when he started his on-the-field protests. Kaepernick later said he'd donate all the proceeds from his jersey sales.

But — surprise! — there's much more going on here than appears on first glance.

First, Villanueva was not alone in the tunnel. The rest of the Steelers were in the tunnel, too, many standing with hands over the hearts during the anthem as well. 

As to the issue of why Villanueva was standing in front of the rest of the team, that's where things get a bit more thorny. 

RELATED: The complete list of protests after Trump's comments in major league sports

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The complete list of protests in major league sports after Trump's comments
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The complete list of protests in major league sports after Trump's comments

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick, pictured here with Eric Reid (#35), began protesting in 2016. Read on to see the players, coaches, team owners and more who have joined the protest. 

 (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars showed solidarity during the first game after Trump's speech urging fans to boycott games where anyone protested during the national anthem. 

According to ESPN the following players took a knee during the national anthem: Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler.

 Reuters/Paul Childs

Baltimore Ravens

Ravens players also made a statement during the Ravens-Jaguars games. 

According to ESPN the following players protested: Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Tim Williams, Tyus Bowser, Za’Darius Smith, Mike Wallace, Carl Davis, Tony Jefferson, Anthony Levine and Lardarius Webb.

(Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Denver Broncos team take a knee during the national anthem during their game against the Buffalo Bills on September 24, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, NY. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 18: (L-R) Ereck Flowers #74, Robert Thomas #99, Damon Harrison #98 and Dalvin Tomlinson #94 of the New York Giants wait to take the field prior to their game against the Detroit Lions at MetLife Stadium on September 18, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 10: Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles raises his fist as he stands during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 10, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) and Atlanta Falcons tackle Dontari Poe (92) kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to the start of the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions on September 24, 2017 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Sep 24, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (44) middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead (59) running back Ameer Abdullah (21) outside linebacker Steve Longa (54) defensive end Jeremiah Ledbetter (98) defensive end Armonty Bryant (97) defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (91) and defensive end Cornelius Washington (90) kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; The Cleveland Browns team stand and kneel during the National Anthem before the start of their game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 24: Members of the Indianapolis Colts stand and kneel for the national anthem prior to the start of the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 24: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Wide Receivers Mike Evans #13, and DeSean Jackson #11, take a knee during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Vikings on September 24, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Sep 24, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; The Houston Texans stand during the national anthem before a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
FOXBOROUGH, MA - SEPTEMBER 24: New England Patriots players take a knee during the national anthem before the start of a game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
September 24, 2017; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets players lock arms during the national anthem before the game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints players sit during the national anthem at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 24: Laremy Tunsil #67, Maurice Smith #27 and Julius Thomas #89 kneel with Jarvis Landry #14 of the Miami Dolphins during the National Anthem prior to an NFL game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 24, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Buffalo Bills players kneel during the American National anthem before an NFL game against the Denver Broncos on September 24, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 24: Tight end Lee Smith #86 of the Oakland Raiders stands as other members of the Raiders sit during the playing of the national anthem before the start of their game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 24, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Sep 24, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins tight end Niles Paul (84) and linebacker Ryan Anderson (52) and Washington Redskins linebacker Chris Carter (55) kneel with teammates during the playing of the national anthem before the game between the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 24: Alejandro Villanueva #78 of the Pittsburgh Steelers stands by himself in the team's tunnel during the national anthem prior to a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on September 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served terms in Afghanistan, was the lone Steeler to appear during the anthem. The Bears won 23-17 in overtime. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 24: The colorguard presents the American Flag as the bench of the Tennessee Titans remains empty during the national anthem prior to a game between the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks at Nissan Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 24: Members of the Cincinnati Bengals stand with arms locked as a sign of unity during the national anthem prior to their game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 24, 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 24: The Green Bay Packers stand in solidarity during the national anthem prior to a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field on September 24, 2017 in Green Bay, WI. (Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: The Los Angeles Chargers are seen during national anthem before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the StubHub Center on September 24, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Justin Houston #50 of the Kansas City Chiefs is seen taking a knee during the National Anthem before the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at the StubHub Center on September 24, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics kneels during the singing of the National Anthem before his MLB American League baseball game against the Seattle Mariners at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, U.S., September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Jun 12, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the 2017 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 1, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh yells to his team during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. The Ravens won the game, 23-20 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 31: Head Coach Doug Marrone of the Jacksonville Jaguars during a preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 31, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. Jaguars defeated the Falcons 13 to 7. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Aug 19, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell during the first quarter against the New York Jets at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 04: Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks at a press conference prior to Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 4, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
September 24, 2017; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets players and coaching staff lock arms during the national anthem before the game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills looks on before a game against the New York Jets on September 10, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan links arms with players during the national anthems before the match Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs
KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 17: Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie before a week 2 NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs on September 17th, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 23: Detroit Lions owners Martha Ford on the sidelines prior to the start of the game against the Washington Redskins at Ford Field on October 23, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Sep 24, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive back Harrison Smith (22) locks arms with general manager Rick Spielman (left) and owner Mark Wilf (middle) and owner Ziggy Wilf (right) before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 024: Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank joins arms with his players during the playing of the national anthem prior to the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 24, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 24: Jermaine Kearse #10, Josh McCown #15, Christopher Johnson and Jamal Adams #33 of the New York Jets stand in unison with their team during the National Anthem prior to an NFL game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium on September 24, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 24: Miami Dolphins Owner Stephen Ross and Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase locks arms with Miami Dolphins players during the National Anthem prior to the National Football League game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins on September 24, 2017, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Sep 24, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder stands with cornerback Josh Norman (24) and cornerback Bashaud Breeland (26) during the playing of the national anthem before the game between the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
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According to ESPN, Villanueva, citing his background as an Army Ranger, intended to stand during the anthem but didn't want to be singled out if his teammates were kneeling, so the team, as a whole, decided to stay off the field as a compromise.

When Villanueva was seen standing in front of them for the anthem, some of his teammates were taken aback. James Harrison said, "We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously. But I guess we weren't."

On Monday, Villanueva addressed the issue, saying he didn't expect he would be visible from where he stood. He also apologized to his teammates: “Unfortunately, I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally."

Villanueva added he's "embarrassed" by the photo and said the situation was "my fault only," insisting that there was no division between him and his teammates. 

Further complicating the narrative, Villanueva was initially critical of Kaepernick's decision to sit or kneel during the anthem as his form of protest, even as he tried to show support to Kaepernick's overall intentions:

"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 said. "You can't do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country."

A year later, though, Villanueva seemed more supportive of the method of protest, voicing support in his press conference following Sunday's incident:

"What people don't understand is people who are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military. They're not saying anything negative about the flag," Villanueva said.

"They're just trying to protest the fact that there is some injustices in America. And for people that stand up for the national anthem, it doesn't mean that they don't believe in these racial injustices; they're just trying to do the right thing."

In the end, Villanueva's attempt to bring nuance to an issue that's so hotly debated has only resulted in a heaping dose of irony — even as he tries to defend his teammates' right to protest, he's become a symbol for those who call for those rights to be curtailed. 

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