Cowboys owner takes national anthem debate further off course


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ARLINGTON, Texas – Did Vice President Mike Pence’s walkout seem like a political grandstanding moment?

“The whole deal is political, and is decided by politics,” Jerry Jones said on Sunday night, when I asked for his reaction to Pence’s apparent stunt in Indianapolis.

Pence left Lucas Oil Stadium after 23 San Francisco 49ers players kneeled in a silent protest during the national anthem before their game against the Indianapolis Colts.

“Let me be real, real clear: The thing the National Football League needs to do and the Dallas Cowboys are going to do, is stand for the flag,” Jones added. “We’re going to do that.”

Jones has made little secret about where he stands on the issue of the protests – even as he crafted a compromise two weeks ago by kneeling with his players before the anthem.

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But he made his strongest statements yet about how he will handle any demonstrations moving forward, declaring that anyone on his team who does so will be held out of games.

What a shame. Jones is game for denying a basic American right for his players.

“We cannot, in the NFL, give the implication that we are disrespecting the flag,” Jones told a handful of reporters following the Cowboys’ 35-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers. “We cannot do that. I know the Vice President did leave because in his opinion the teams were. We know that there is a serious debate in this country about those issues, but there is no question in my mind that the National Football League and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag. So we’re clear about that.”

Actually, it’s anything but clear.

Kneeling for the flag during the anthem is a sign of respect, the gesture of soldiers paying homage to fallen comrades during battle. It was an act Colin Kaepernick decided to do last year after initially sitting during the song, while protesting police brutality and other forms of racial injustice.

Yet Jones is advancing the narrative that the protests disrespect the American flag, which went up another notch with Pence – stealing the thunder from Peyton Manning’s big day in having his jersey retired by the Colts – staging his protest of the protests.

Me to Jerry: Are you saying it was OK for Pence to walk out on the game?

“I’m saying that our Vice President of the United States, in his opinion, he basically should, if in his opinion, express himself, however he wants to say it,” Jones said. “He’s got rights, too. So however he wants to do it. He felt that not standing for the flag was disrespectful. I do, too. The league should, absolutely, take the rules we’ve got on the books and make sure that we’re not giving the perception that we’re disrespecting the flag.”

So Pence has his right to protest, but the players don’t?

This is anything but clear.

And it’s even muddier with the supposed rule Jones alluded to, which President Trump has been referencing lately as something that mandates that players must stand for the anthem. Well, not quite.

First of all, it’s not in the NFL’s official rule book. The directive regarding the national anthem is contained in the league’s game operations manual, and it’s actually more of a “guideline” rather than a rule – although it does come attached with a warning about discipline, like so many other components that can fall under the broad power of the Commissioner.

And it says players “must” be on the sideline during the anthem and “should” stand. Calling it a rule that prohibits kneeling or other forms of protest, like raising a fist, is a loose definition of the term.

“That’s the rule on the books, in my opinion,” Jones said. “We are going to stand for the flag. And we’ve done that. We’ve kneeled and supported each other before the national anthem. We’ve stood for the national anthem. We’ve always done that. And there is no equivocation. We’ve done that.”

What Jones and others seem to conveniently overlook is the “rule” that is the U.S. Constitution, ensuring basic rights, including the freedom of speech and expression.

Trump called Jones shortly after the Cowboys executed Jones’ compromise gesture at Arizona – kneeling before the anthem. I asked Jones if he told Trump of his position that the Cowboys would not “disrespect” the flag during their phone conversation.

“No, I did not,” Jones replied. “I listened to him. He shared with me that there had been a rule on the books, in the game operations (manual). He said, ‘You know there’s a rule that’s been there? For years. About game operations.’ “

Added Jones: “I’m not saying that I wasn’t aware of it. I’m just saying that (Trump) did say, ‘This could have all been resolved.’ Whether I agree with him or not, I also said, ‘There are several things that we don’t agree about. We’re friends, but there are several things we don’t agree about.’ ”

Then Jones got back his talking points about the flag and disrespect.

And it sounded so political.

Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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