It was Tuesday, October 10, when Jerry Jones made it plain. He brayed that any player on his Dallas Cowboys team who protested racism during the anthem would be suspended. Only two weeks earlier Jones had led his whole team in a bizarre, pre-anthem knee bend—a showcase of unity to advance the cause of “unity.” It was the protest equivalent of tapioca pudding.
After announcing that he would now be cracking down on his “boys,” Jones explained that his motives were paternal. He was trying to help them resist “peer pressure.” He said that they “need consequences” to change their behavior. He boasted of the wisdom gleaned from a conversation with Donald Trump that “reminded him of the NFL Game Operations Manual, which explains how players should behave during the anthem and failure to do so could result in fines, suspensions and even lost draft picks.” (None of that is true.)
At some point over the following week, he must have learned that the rule book does not mandate that players stand at attention per his dictates. On October 18, according to leaked reports, he fumed like Yosemite Sam at the NFL owners meeting in New York, insisting they change the manual and punish players for their protests. The allegedly most powerful franchise owner in sports was met by his brethren with crickets. They treated Jerry the way the NFL is now treating Donald Trump: Roll your eyes and move forward.
In between this demonstration of Jones’s bark and absence of bite, he met with his team, which could not understand why Jones had “turned against” them. Jones told them that he “wanted to play the bad guy and deflect attention” from the rest of the Cowboys. But all he did was put them under a national microscope, not deflecting attention but magnifying it.
Jones’s public threats were especially odd given that last year no one on the Cowboys had been among those raising a fist, dropping to one knee, or taking a seat with Colin Kaepernick. This year, on October 8, defensive linemen Damontre Moore and David Irving raised their fists during the anthem, as reporter Kate Hairopolous described, “In solidarity with the movement…started last year, protesting social injustice and police brutality,” but that was it.
After a flurry of phone calls from the White House, Jerry Jones decided he was going to be Donald Trump’s sentry in the culture war against black dissenters, threatening punishments, and giving the addled president, in whom Jones had already made a $41 million investment, a much-needed culture-war victory. Yet Jones has been waging this fight for compulsory patriotism in football in the context of Trump’s insulting war widow Myeshia Johnson, being dragged by John McCain for his “bone spur” deferments for Vietnam, and seeing his own popularity plummet. He’s a losing bet, and it’s possible Jones is realizing that.
This past Sunday, the Cowboys were playing the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has decided to maintain the resistance no matter what carrots the owners are offering. They had multiple players sitting, raising a fist, or standing in support of those in protest. Across the field were the Cowboys in a state of discipline—you could almost sense Trump’s Twitter finger twitching with glee—and then, as the anthem was about to hit its final note, David Irving raised his right fist.
Irving has family who have served or are serving in the military. This is a simple reality for many who grow up poor in the United States. If you aren’t making the NFL, enlisting is held out as way out of poverty (the truth is somewhat different). Irving’s father is a master sergeant in the Marine Corps and his brother also served as a Marine. Irving said he had extensive discussions with his father before deciding to take part.
When asked about Irving’s fist after the game, a 40-10 victory for the Cowboys, all Jones could say was, “Ever since he got back off his suspension [Irving was suspended for four games at the start of the season] he has made important plays. We need him out there. I am certainly pleased with any aspect of what he was about today, with his play or anything else.”
Jean Jacques-Taylor—co-host of JDubCity on ESPN radio 103.3 FM, Cowboys Insider for NBCDFW, and longtime member of the Dallas Cowboys beat—told me, “I’ve never believed Jerry would punish players as long as they stood during the anthem—even if they raised a fist the whole time—if it was a talented big-time player that he couldn’t afford to lose.”
David Irving is indeed vital to the Cowboys defense. That immediately makes Jones “pleased with any aspect of what he was about today.” And as owners squirm to make peace with a restive work force, it looks like they are going to ignore players who raise their fist during the anthem, instead focusing on those who sit or kneel. Owners must think raising a fist is less obvious than sitting or kneeling. The irony is that raising one’s fist during the anthem is about as radical a gesture imaginable, recalling John Carlos and Tommie Smith and the 1968 Olympics. As John Carlos has said, “Our fists were raised in solidarity with oppressed people throughout the world.”
This all goes to show that opposition to the protests was never about respect for the flag or the anthem. It has always been about division and racism. But the fact Jerry Jones now has to smile his way through it is just another sign of how much ground the owners lost and how much of their own humanity the players have reclaimed.