Jerry Jones picked a good time to issue his proclamation that any Dallas Cowboys player who took a knee during the national anthem would spend the game in the locker room. He did it over a week ago, immediately after a devastating loss that ate at the team’s fanbase, and he did it before the team went on a bye—meaning that any player who immediately wanted to defy the ultimatum has had two weeks to consider the implications.
Jones’s statement was essentially an echo of the demand that Donald Trump made of NFL owners in September to “get that son of a bitch out of here” if he refuses to stand for the anthem. “If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones said. “Understand? If we are disrespecting the flag, then we will not play.” (The question of whether or not kneeling during the national anthem is “disrespecting the flag” is the subject of another debate, but in the minds of the Trump and Jones, it appears to be settled.)
Pundits have urged the team’s biggest stars, including Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, and Demarcus Lawrence, to call what they see as Jones’s bluff. At Fansided, Dre Elder published a column with the headline, “Why Jerry Jones will back down if Dak, Zeke, Dez protest.” At Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg insisted that the team’s stars would be unlikely to suffer any team-mandated blowback on Sunday if they did decide to defy Jones. “For the rest of the season, Prescott and Elliott and Lawrence should do whatever they feel is right,” Rosenberg wrote. “But if they decide they want to kneel, they should remember: no matter what their owner says, he probably has their back.” Former Super Bowl champion wide receiver Plaxico Burress framed the racial implications of Jones’s decree before urging the team’s stars to kneel in defiance.
— Plaxico Burress (@plaxicoburress) October 9, 2017
Dez, Zeek, Dak, and everybody else. Take a knee, and see if your beloved owner has a team to line up on Sunday. Hmmmm? @nfl
— Plaxico Burress (@plaxicoburress) October 9, 2017
Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys going out there with Kellen Moore under center if Prescott decided to make a statement during the anthem, or to opt for Alfred Morris over Elliott. But even if they were successful in forcing Jones to choose their football prowess over his desire to see the Cowboys excluded from the narrative around protests in the NFL in the short-term, the long-term implications of a protest means that any player—even one of the NFL’s brightest stars—would be taking his career into his hands by doing so.
To understand that, one need look no further than Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick, in 2012, essentially was Dak Prescott. He took over his team after the established starter went down, impressed everyone immediately with his skill and decision-making, and concluded the season with a 10:3 touchdown/interception ratio and a 98.3 passer rating. (Prescott, by comparison, went 34:8 and posted a 101.6 in his first season.) He led the team to the Super Bowl, coming within a single score of taking home the Lombardi Trophy in his first year in the NFL. In his second year in the league, like Prescott, he experienced little drop-off, posting a 91.6 passer rating and leading the team to within a single play of a repeat appearance in the Super Bowl. He struggled in his fourth season, under a new coach, and suffered a shoulder injury and a benching before bouncing back in 2016 for a statistically strong season on a talent-starved San Francisco 49ers team. Then, of course, he found himself unable to sign as a free agent with any team in the NFL, even as a backup quarterback. On Sunday, Kaepernick watched from home as a quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick, backing up the mobile Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay, threw half as many interceptions (2) in one game as Kaepernick threw in the entire 2016 season (4).
That surely weighs heavily on the mind of any player in Dallas who is considering taking a knee or raising a fist during the anthem when the Cowboys come back from the bye on Sunday against Kaepernick’s old team in San Francisco. It’s easy for the NFL to decide that they’re content to leave talent behind if other concerns outweigh the need to have the best chance to win. (In mid-October, the Tennessee Titans signed 34-year-old former Cowboys/Texans bust Brandon Weeden to back up the mobile Marcus Mariota, prompting Kaepernick to file a collusion lawsuit against the league.) All of which is to say that it’s easy for today’s star players to see the example of Kaepernick and wonder if job security exists in the NFL. The notion that Prescott, Elliott, and Bryant are untouchable is true in a sense: The Cowboys most likely are not prepared to start Sunday’s game without them, and Jones loves winning too much to leave any of them in the locker room if they’re healthy and not suspended. But choosing to defy the mandate of their team’s owner would likely make any one of them a lightning rod for criticism, as Kaepernick has become. If that happens, it’d be easy to build a narrative that a given player was never actually that good at football. The Cowboys are only 2-3 this year, after all, and Prescott’s already thrown as many interceptions in 2017 as he did in all of 2016—it wouldn’t be a stretch for someone to argue that the league has just figured him out.
The only way the Cowboys could truly defy Jones with any degree of security would be if they explicitly didn’t put the burden of demonstration on players who have as much to lose as Prescott, Elliott, and Bryant do. If any of the three were to take a knee, the consequences could be dire. If a player like Jason Witten, on the other hand—who as a white star near the end of his career is in a dramatically different place than his younger black teammates—were to make a statement during the anthem, the tenor of the conversation would shift dramatically. (Thus far, Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve is the only white player to take a knee during the anthem.) That’s unlikely to happen: Witten told reporters in September that he’ll stand during the anthem “with my hand over my heart until the day that I die.” If he did protest, it would make a markedly different statement than if one of the Cowboys’ black stars did, which speaks to exactly why calling Jones’s ultimatum a bluff puts a huge amount of pressure on those players. No matter who you are, going on a limb with everything to lose might be asking too much.