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.