Not even Hollywood could script this.
On Friday night, the president of the United States takes on the National Football League. He calls players who exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest “son of a b—-.” The next day, the president doubles down on Twitter, demanding those same players stand for the national anthem or face harsh discipline. A far cry from what he tweeted two days after his inauguration:
Then, on Sunday, more than 130 players from various teams kneeled, sat or locked arms during the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks remained in the locker room altogether. While all this is taking place, President Donald Trump’s administration goes on the offensive, suggesting the NFL should implement a rule with regard to anthem protests. Trump’s assertion Monday morning that kneeling for the anthem had “nothing to do with race” further sullies a yearlong campaign of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s original point: It was never about the flag. It was never about disrespecting the troops — the men and women of the military protected his right to kneel. And it was never about the anthem itself. Lost in an endless cycle of debates and purposeful misdirections is that Kaepernick wanted to bring light to police brutality and economic disparities and injustices in lower-income communities.
Which brings us to Monday night’s iteration of Monday Night Football, quite possibly the most American weekly sports tradition of all. And on this Monday, as fate has so lavishly prepared, the schedule features the NFL’s most lucrative, popular, hated and polarizing franchise: the Dallas Cowboys (visiting the Arizona Cardinals). What example, if any, does America’s Team set after a weekend of protests that had been brewing for over a year since Kaepernick decided to take a knee and then-candidate Trump suggested the quarterback “find another country” to call home?
Born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia, I should have been a Washington fan, but family ties won out — in favor of Dallas. The Cowboys, since the mid-’90s, constitute my life’s most emotionally taxing relationship: perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak. My deepest connection to the Cowboys is through my mother. Her favorite player was Jethro Pugh, a ferocious yet warm defensive lineman who played college ball at North Carolina’s historically black Elizabeth City State University under my grandfather, coach John Marshall, in the early ’60s.
Pugh, who died in 2015, became one of the greatest players in Dallas history and a key cog in the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” that helped deliver the franchise its first two Super Bowls. A pass rushing savant, Pugh also led the team in sacks for five straight seasons, 1968-72. My mother remained a Dallas fan over the years and grew to love former coach Tom Landry (and his fedora).
In the 1990s, when football became a major facet of my life, the Cowboys were lit. They won nearly as much as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, capturing three Super Bowls in four years. In truth, at least five Bowls were in order, had it not been for two fumbles: the first was Deion Sanders’ missed pass interference call on Michael Irvin in the 1994 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, and the second was owner Jerry Jones’ ego-driven decision to fire Jimmy Johnson after back-to-back Super Bowl victories.
Nevertheless, the Starter Jackets were fresh and, as trivial as it sounds now, the Dallas Cowboys — featuring names such as Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Charles Haley and more — were bad boys and rock stars in the age of Tupac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Nirvana. Their success on the field made them seem larger than life, and this outsize brand persona was made evident by Jeff Pearlman’s fascinating exploration of the teams’ 1990s run: Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.
America loves its reality television, and in football there is none greater than the Cowboys, a team often too comfortable operating under a veil of chaos. What spinach was to Popeye, headlines and controversy are to Dallas — despite the fact that there have been only two playoff victories since the organization’s last Super Bowl in 1996. As a fan, it’s fun to wallow in that attention. The Terrell Owens years are a prime example. The Tony Romo era is another. But at times, Jones’ willingness to embrace controversy is anything but enjoyable — most notably Greg Hardy’s signing after a graphically publicized domestic violence case. Or the frustration that came with the immensely talented but troubled linebacker Rolando McClain.
What will the Cowboys do Monday night? Not surprisingly, Jones recently said on Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan that he felt strongly about recognizing the flag and the people who sacrificed for the liberties we enjoy: “I feel very strongly that everyone should save that moment for the recognition of the flag in a positive way, so I like the way the Cowboys do it.” Glenstone Limited Partnership helped fund a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee earlier this year. Glenstone Limited Partnership is a segment of Glenstone Corp., which is led by Jones.
Despite mysterious posts on social media and conflicting statements from “inside” sources, nothing suggests the Cowboys will do anything of note. Dallas has yet to have a player engage in protest, last season or this season. The Cowboys would not be the only team to keep it business as usual.
But everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet. Jones has lived off that bravado since he purchased the team in 1989. The players and fan base followed suit. It’s part of the territory that comes with being a team whose stadium could pass for the eighth wonder of the world. The franchise is valued at nearly $5 billion and comes with A-list fans such as LeBron James, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington, Russell Westbrook, Jamie Foxx and Allen Iverson.
Still, the team appears unified in neutrality. Second-year quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t plan on participating in protests, saying last month, “It’s just important for me to go out there, hand over my heart, represent our country and just be thankful, and not take anything I’ve been given and my freedom for granted.” This was before ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity became a narrative. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Crock-Pot of moving parts, rumors and controversies. Pro-Bowl linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith provided virtually the same answer: Both disagree with Trump’s statements but refused to expand any further. And star wideout Dez Bryant seems content with his stance. “I’m not criticizing nobody,” Bryant said recently of the swelling number of players in the league joining the protest. “They’re free to do whatever they want. Hell, no, I’m not doing none of that. Their beliefs are their beliefs, and I’m not saying they’re wrong because they’re feeling a certain way. They’re supposed to.”
But this particular juncture feels different because it is different. New York Giants defensive end Damon Harrison said of the moment the president placed the entire league in his crosshairs that it was “bigger than money, bigger than the game,” and that if he didn’t voice his frustrations he “wouldn’t be able to sleep or walk with my head held high as a man or father.” And Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas was moved to tears by the magnitude of Trump’s comments, and our racial climate overall. The Cowboys have their on-field issues. They haven’t looked particularly dominant, even in their lone victory over an Odell Beckham-less Giants. And a week later, Dallas had its muffin cap peeled back by the Denver Broncos.
Kneeling at NFL games during the national anthem in protest of systemic inequalities went from being “Kaepernick’s fight” or “Michael Bennett’s problem” to a movement the leader of the free world not only monitors but also attempts to eradicate (while at the same time, Puerto Rico pleads for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that’s left most of the U.S. territory immobile and without electricity).
In an ideal world, the league’s most powerful owner and biggest cash cow of a team would make some sort of bold statement — more than locking arms or placing hands on shoulders. The president’s anger toward players who are not content with cashing checks and staying mum only scratches the surface of a far more cancerous issue: that players, who in the NFL are 70 percent black and are on the field destroying their bodies, are often seen as undeserving of earnings apparently awarded by owners to players who should be grateful for the money. White owners, on the other hand, are viewed as fully deserving of their billions.
The Cowboys may be fine with playing the role of an ostrich with its head buried in the turf. It’s the Cowboys I’ve come to expect. It still doesn’t make it any less weird that a franchise priding itself on being “America’s Team” remains self-muzzled during a time when America needs to be anything but, both in speech and in action. In a better world, and in a move that would shake both the league and the Oval Office to its core, the Cowboys would’ve long since signed Kaepernick — he’s of course far more polished than the team’s current backups, Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush. But this isn’t a better world. At least not yet.