Jerry Jones was on the line Wednesday afternoon, and it felt a lot like damage control.
The loquacious Dallas Cowboys owner is drawing heat for maintaining during a radio interview Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas that it is “really disappointing” for anybody (read: protesting players) to use the NFL’s platform to make social statements.
Jones, who embodies the big business of the league more than anyone as owner of the world's most valuable sports franchise (according to Forbes), hardly backed off that stance. But he felt an urge to provide context, insisting that his response was to a question about the moving tribute to 9/11 first responders that the team showcased during pregame and halftime ceremonies at AT&T Stadium on Sunday.
“I wanted it to be all about commemorating 9/11, which to our nation was like Pearl Harbor,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports.
But still, what about protests against social injustice that started with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and have spread to nearly a dozen other NFL players?
“I don’t have a thing to say about that,” Jones said.
If you know Jones, who always has something to say, that’s a statement in itself. No Cowboys players have sat, taken a knee or raised a John Carlos/Tommie Smith-like fist during the national anthem. At the start of training camp, though, the team followed tight end Jason Witten’s lead and christened its first practice by locking arms with Dallas police as a show of support following the July tragedy when five officers were slain during a sniper attack in Dallas. The Cowboys wanted to wear a helmet decal, too, but the idea was nixed by the NFL.
“I’m not insensitive or oblivious about the issues,” Jones said when asked about the social concerns expressed by players, which include police brutality. “These are big, important, critical issues.”
Still, in my view, his comments on Tuesday, so unequivocally against even the hint of a protest during the 9/11 tribute, marginalized the concerns of many people — primarily African-Americans and other minorities, whose worldview may lead them to believe there may be no better time for someone to exercise their First Amendment right of expression than during the anthem. Almost as soon as Kaepernick ignited this debate on the NFL landscape, the narrative shifted in many ways from his statement about social concerns to questions about support of the U.S. military and patriotism.
But hey, just because one expresses discontent about, say, African-Americans losing lives and suffering other forms of abuse at the hands of some police doesn’t mean they’re not patriotic. After all, the flag represents the good old American values of freedom of speech and expression, too.
Of course, to have these discussions on a platform usually reserved for a game is a headache for the NFL, which packages its wildly popular product for the masses and generates more than $13 billion per year in revenues. Even with a “social responsibility” department, established in the wake of the domestic violence episodes in 2014, there is concern about whether too much focus on social issues will diminish the league’s appeal to fans ... and sponsors.
Yet in just a few weeks, the league will go pink in the name of breast cancer awareness. It’s a good cause — and also one near to the heart of Commissioner Roger Goodell, who lost his mother to the disease. But to some people (and several players), social injustice is the cause they’d like to rally around.
That’s why it was so inspiring that on the same day Jones expressed his disappointment about the prospect of more protests, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall — he took a knee last Thursday night to support Kaepernick, his college teammate — was moved to action. Marshall, who lost two endorsements and received scathing reaction on social media for merely expressing his discontent, spent a good chunk of time Tuesday visiting with Denver Police chief Robert White. They discussed issues, concerns and, yes, ways that the football player can help bridge the gap between police and their communities.
White told The Denver Post that he supported Marshall’s American right to take a knee, regardless of whether or not he agreed with the method. It sounds like they had a good dialogue — which this entire situation begs for, as well as understanding and respect in how different opinions are expressed.
“He wants to do something about it,” White said, via The Post. “And part of doing something about it is going to the source of where you think some of those issues are.”
Kaepernick is being proactive, too. He’s pledged to donate the first $1 million of his $11.9 million base salary to groups that address social inequality. Even more encouraging is that 49ers CEO Jed York announced last week that the team will donate $1 million to two Bay Area organizations that focus on racial and social inequalities.
Meanwhile, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who last year established the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), has backed his players after four kneeled in Sunday's opener.
“This is a conversation we need to have,” Ross said Wednesday on CNBC. “They’re having a conversation that no one wants to talk about. I respect it, and I encourage it.”
I encourage it, too. The action by the players, from sideline statements to community involvement, is surely moving the ball. They have raised awareness and sparked national conversation. Yet power brokers like Jones need to be moved, too, even if the social injustices being protested don’t typically occur in his world.
Jones, who once hosted former South African president Nelson Mandela for a game, insists that he is giving serious thought of ways to become proactive in this regard.
“I will be a beacon in the clubhouse,” he said. “This is where my feet can move with my heart.”
That’s hardly a “disappointing” tone. Maybe it’s a First Amendment expression that represents the next step toward action speaking louder than words.
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