By one metric, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Alejandro Villanueva has emerged from the NFL’s current controversy as the most popular player in the league.
In the last 24 hours, Villanueva’s No. 78 is the best-selling jersey on Fanatics, the biggest retailer of sports merchandise, after the offensive tackle and ex-Army Ranger stood on the field for the national anthem while his teammates stayed out of sight.
Villanueva and his teammates were reacting to President Donald Trump’s criticism of the players who have been kneeling during the pre-game national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
Players have been under a microscope since Trump spoke out on Twitter, highlighting divisions in locker rooms and among fans and commentators. A Fox News columnist, for example, called Villanueva a “hero among cowards.” Teammate James Harrison hinted to reporters that the team was surprised that Villanueva, who did three tours in Afghanistan and has been critical of anthem protests in the past, opted to do his own thing, against the vote of the rest of the team.
Fanatics says Villanueva is now the most popular across all NFL player products and across the company’s platforms, which include the NFL’s official online shop. The rest of the top five are less fraught choices: quarterbacks Tom Brady, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers.
Jersey sales highlight how polarizing the anthem demonstrations have become. Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the first player to kneel during the anthem in protest of police brutality and systemic racism, is one of the top 40 players for jersey sales, in spite of the fact that he’s not currently on a team.