The rule, announced in May, was controversial from the beginning. It banned players from kneeling, raising fists, or otherwise participating in on-field demonstrations during the anthem, but gave them the choice to remain in the locker room while the song played. The NFL Players’ Association, which negotiates its collective bargaining agreement with the league, objected to the rule—and they weren’t the only ones. Despite praising the policy days after it was announced, President Donald Trump declared earlier this month that it was “worse than the old one.” It was already subject to a legal challenge from players.
Jones has been troubled by Trump’s tendency to press the issue for a while. Last week, he admitted that the president’s interest in the issue was “problematic” and that he “would like for it to go away.” And on Wednesday, he announced to reporters that he would be implementing his own policy regarding the anthem for Cowboys players. “As far as the Dallas Cowboys, you know where I stand, the team knows where I stand,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “Our policy is you stand during the anthem, toe on the line.” His son Stephen doubled down on that statement during a radio interview. When asked whether he believed players would comply with the team’s rule, he said, “If they want to be a Dallas Cowboy, yes.” In response, Trump tweeted his encouragement.
Way to go Jerry. This is what the league should do! https://t.co/yEP1jK57xi
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2018
Football fans who are critical of players’ decisions to protest during the anthem often point to the players being at work while on the field. Forums and comment sections on stories about anthem demonstrations are full of people making the point that, if your boss tells you not to do something while you’re at work and you do it anyway, you’re subject to losing your job. But the same logic also extends to Jones. If you work at a McDonald’s, and you choose to engage in demonstrations while on the clock, your boss can fire you. But if you own a McDonald’s, and you refuse to follow corporate policies, you’re also subject to sanctions from the company.
And that might explain why Jones has very suddenly gone silent on the issue of anthem protests. On Sunday night, a number of television stations who had booked him for interviews from the team’s training camp in California were informed that questions regarding the anthem policy and his team’s approach to it were not allowed. Mike Doocy of Dallas’s Fox 4 News promptly canceled his interview with Jones. According to reports from within the league, Jones was “ordered” to keep his mouth shut regarding the anthem—and, in this instance, he seems to have decided to comply.
Just days before Jones made his declaration last week, the NFL put its revised anthem policy on hold, pending negotiations with the NFLPA. One of the league’s owners publicly declaring that he’d flout the NFL’s own policy in favor of one he prefers may actually help the union in those negotiations. According to legal experts, Jones’s preferred policy—which, according to Stephen’s comments, would see players who don’t toe the line dismissed—is probably illegal. The players’ union knows that Jones wants a policy that requires every member of the Cowboys to stand on the field for the anthem, which is only likely to pass legal muster if the NFLPA agrees to that condition. Now, they know that he wants it so badly that he’ll break with the rest of the league—and potentially violate labor laws—in order to get it done. That gives them a great deal of leverage in extracting concessions from the league in order to get to a version of the policy that Jones (and at least some of his less outspoken colleagues) will be satisfied with.
An agreement with the union is likely the only way out of the issue for the NFL. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins—one of the leaders among players around anthem demonstrations, who raised a fist during the 2017 season—told reporters that he’d intended to stop protesting during the anthem for 2018 and keep his activism focused on criminal justice reform efforts on Capitol Hill and within the Philadelphia community. But after the league announced its new policy, Jenkins bristled, saying that the new policy “would not silence” him. That’s unsurprising—no one feels good about having someone tell them what they are and aren’t allowed to do—and it speaks to why the NFL’s heavy hand has kept the issue alive over the past six months, a time when nobody has been in a stadium, played the national anthem, or taken a knee.
Even though the two sides seem far apart, players like Jenkins, Eric Reid, and others who’ve demonstrated during the anthem have discussed that it’s not really about taking a knee or raising a fist. Rather, Jenkins said in May, it’s part of an attempt by players to “use our voices, our time, and our money to create a more fair and just criminal justice system, end police brutality, and foster better educational and economic opportunities for communities of color and those struggling in this country.”
Ironically, given the role Jones’s comments have played in strengthening the players’ bargaining position, they may actually end up helping to resolve the issue within the NFL. With a unilateral policy intended as a “compromise” in place, the league has been facing blowback from both its players and the president. With that policy off the table, and the players entering negotiations over a new rule with added leverage, the two parties have the opportunity to develop a new policy that addresses the players’ frustrations and requests for change, and gives them a strong hand in shaping it.
But first, the league’s owners will need to be willing to give them that strong hand. That’s something that even players who’ve never shown an interest in demonstrating during the anthem seem to want. Taking a knee might be divisive, but using the league’s platform to further causes around racial justice, criminal justice reform, and the other issues that inspired the protests in the first place doesn’t seem to be. As Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott put it when asked about Jones’s policy, he’s not interested in protest—but he is interested in social justice.
“I never protest,” Prescott told reporters. “I think this whole kneeling and all of that was just about raising awareness, and the fact that we’re still talking about social injustice years later, I think we’ve gotten to that point. I think we’ve proved, we know the social injustice, I’m up for taking the next step, whatever the next step may be, for action and not just kneeling. I’ve always believed in standing up for what I believe in, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m not naive and I’m very aware of the injustice that we have going on, but I’m about the actions that we can do to fix it rather than the silent protest.”