For nearly a year, there was a meme floating around the Internet that crawled under the skin of Dallas Cowboys ownership. It was a perfect fake news frame up, featuring a splashy mythical quote from team owner Jerry Jones, supposedly threatening to fire any players who knelt for the national anthem.
It was effective, reaching so far across social media that other NFL players asked some Cowboys counterparts if Jones had actually said it. He hadn’t, of course. But it didn’t stop one idea from growing in the social media ether: of all the owners in the NFL, surely Jerry Jones would never allow his players to use their NFL stage in a form of protest.
Then came Monday night, when Jones and his Cowboys players found a way to wipe all of the myths in one motion: Lined up perfectly, arms locked, dropping to one knee at midfield on “Monday Night Football” … before the national anthem. A few seconds later, they stood again for the anthem – having unified to try and serve two goals. A united knee to promote the push for justice and equal rights. A united stand to support those whose sacrifices make that push possible.
Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, the team’s chief operating officer, did both.
The Cowboys players did both.
The Dallas coaching staff did both.
The nuanced attempt to honor won’t please everyone. Surely some will say you can’t kneel before the anthem and stand for the anthem. And surely, there will always be those who would rather promote strife and watch the world burn rather than find the middle ground where everyone can press forward together.
But the Cowboys chose to try and find the tricky space that everyone could live with. And in doing so, they sent a message to those who would still find weakness or flaw in the attempt. Saying something along the lines of, “We’ve chosen common ground. If you don’t like that, be damned.”
So how did this happen? Well, start with the fake news meme, which fraudulently attributes a quote to Jones in which he tells his entire team “You are all simply paid performers on a stage and that field is my stage!” According to several Cowboys sources who spoke with Yahoo Sports, that line infuriated some inside the organization, painting Jones as some “good ‘ol boy” caricature spouting plantation-era values to his employees.
It pissed off the Cowboys. And it pissed the team off even more that it generated calls from reporters to the public relations department, seeking to find out if anything of the sort was ever said.
Does that mean Jones never spoke to some players about the national anthem? No. According to sources who spoke with Yahoo Sports, Jones casually chatted with a few members of the team’s leadership committee, letting them know the anthem was very close to his heart. Jones said he felt it was something that honored first responders, military families and the civil servants who make so many sacrifices every day. But this wasn’t a secret to any of the players. They have long known that Jones and head coach Jason Garrett have a deep well of affection when it comes to the people whose jobs involve protecting and serving. To the point that Dallas practices lining up perfectly for the anthem.
That’s apparently as far as the talks went for Jones. The sources said he never told players they couldn’t kneel for the anthem. He never told them they couldn’t protest. He only shared with a handful of players why the anthem was close to his heart – never suggesting it was an untouchable game day tradition.
This is important, because this is partly how Monday night’s “kneel and stand” gesture formed. After President Donald Trump’s acidic remarks on Friday, members of the Cowboys’ leadership committee began talking about how the players felt and what they wanted to do about it. At one point over the weekend, the anthem and forms of protest were a big part of a meeting held by a large contingent of players. Ultimately, it was members of the leadership committee who began talking about doing both gestures: kneeling in a unified protest, and then standing in unified support during the anthem. The players also spoke with some of their counterparts on the Arizona Cardinals about a potential joint gesture by both teams. The hope, at least initially, was that both teams would kneel before the anthem, and then stand to honor the flag.
For whatever reason, the cooperative stance involving both teams never materialized Monday night. But Jones and his family – as well as the coaching staff – were on board with standing on the field and taking a knee in unity with his players. Which isn’t exactly a new development. Jones is known for being in tune with his captains and veterans, particularly the leadership counsel, which has bent Jones’ ear with past grievances – like the disruptive acts of Greg Hardy in 2015 – and let him know when something needed to be internally addressed.
On Monday night, that cooperative relationship was on full display. The players needed to see from Jones and Cowboys ownership that he understood where their minds and hearts were at after Trump’s comments. They needed to know their team owner and the franchise was behind them. And also because Jones and Garrett needed the players to understand why the anthem was important to them, too.
That understanding of each other – listening to each other, being in-tune with each other – is what created the space to kneel and stand. And most important, to do both as a team. It wiped out the myth that Jones was the team owner who would never open his stage for protest, but also recognized the ambitious racial and social equality push of NFL players can coexist with a revered symbol.
Finding a way to honor both has been the journey defining this young NFL season. The space is elusive and tricky, but it exists if sides are willing to listen. Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys proved that much on Monday night.
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