Jerry Jones Is the NFL’s Biggest Distraction

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones represents the worst of 21-century sports ownership. He has accrued wealth through fleecing the public and thinks that makes him a genius. He thinks he knows more about football than anyone in the room by virtue of his bank account, no matter how many gobsmacking mistakes are on his record. He’s the kind of person who truly seems to think that he doesn’t own merely a franchise but the players.

Coming on the heels of his team’s nail-biting loss to the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Jones addressed reporters on the topic of player protests.

Speaking for the entire organization, Jones decreed that “If we are disrespecting the flag then we won’t play. Period. We’re going to respect the flag and I’m going to create the perception of it.”

Yes, he wants to coerce his players to respect the flag and anthem, as a tribute to freedom. Jones has no right do to this, from a legal and labor—let alone a moral—perspective, yet he is undeterred.

This has thrilled Donald Trump, to whom Jones handed a million dollars last year for his “inauguration committee,” because it aligns with Trump’s efforts to demonize black athletes for attempting to raise awareness about police brutality and racial inequality by kneeling or raising a fist while the song plays. Jones said he didn’t realize until he talked to Trump that the rule book prevents players from taking a knee—and if you believe that, there aren’t boots in Texas thick enough to get you through the cow pasture.

Only the most myopic can’t see that this is not about the flag. It’s about a craven politician trying to distract people from a train wreck of a presidency, and a sports owner driven to coerce obedience among the players he refers to as his “boys.”

Even if the pundits won’t acknowledge that, it is clear enough to the players, who have had to have numerous team meetings this week to “clear the air” about Jones’s comments. Ironically, last year the Cowboys didn’t have anyone on their roster who was part of any kind of kneeling. But Jones’s words have turned this into a discussion not about police brutality but their own self-respect.

Their anger is rooted not only in his dictates but in his reasoning. As ESPN’s Chris Mortenson reported, Jones “was adamant the [anthem] policy is in best interest of players, who ‘need consequences’ to stand up to peer pressure.” The racist paternalism in this statement is beyond caricature.

Michael Wilbon was hardly speaking just for himself when he described Jones on ESPN by saying, “The word that comes to my mind, and I don’t care who doesn’t like me using it, is ‘plantation.’ The players are here to serve me; they will do what I want no matter how much I pay them. They are not equal to me. That’s what this says to me and to mine.”

It didn’t exactly help when Jerry’s idea of mollifying this anger involved landing his helicopter on the practice field, lecturing his players, and then flying away. Apparently, his lecture said nothing about any concern over the social issues at play. Instead, according to ESPN, he wanted to make sure “that players also saw the bigger picture regarding the business side of the situation, including concerns over TV ratings and sponsors.”

(Given that remarkable scene, it is worth asking how anyone with a straight face could call Colin Kaepernick a “distraction” when Jerry Jones exists in the same ecosystem.)

But a better question is, honestly, who the hell is Jerry Jones to preach morality to anybody? He doesn’t want players to be political, but had no qualms about signing Greg Hardy, the defensive end who was convicted by a judge of assaulting an ex-girlfriend in July 2014, after the victim alleged that he “threw her into furniture, strangled her, and threatening to kill her.”

This did not deter Jones, who signed Hardy to a one-year $11.3 million contract, and remained committed to his player after the NFL’s two-month-long investigation found that there was “sufficient credible evidence” that Hardy had engaged in conduct that “violated NFL policies in multiple respects and with aggravating circumstances” and suspended him for 10 games. (The suspension was dropped to four games after appeal.) After outliving his usefulness to the team, Jones and the Cowboys decided to cut bait with Hardy after one season.

Hardy is just the tip of the iceberg. Jerry Jones has never hesitated to sign players who were suspected or guilty of violence against women or of other felonies. He really seems to view all players through this lens, the viewpoint of someone who is like a benevolent warden.

Then there is Jerry Jones’s own personal approach to women, hidden successfully, except for photos that surfaced from 2009, connected to efforts to silence sexual-harassment allegations. (A woman later charged Jones with assault, but the charges were dismissed.)

In light of all this, that Jerry Jones appears to take issue more with his players’ protesting systemic racism than domestic abusers’ suiting up in a Cowboys uniform isn’t contradictory but actually pretty consistent. No one knows whether players will push back against Jones during a game. (They have a bye-week this week). But, for fans of the team, it’s been laid bare. Since Jerry Jones has shown that he cares above all else about the bottom line, maybe he’ll be shown that his own actions have redefined how far to the “bottom” that line can drop.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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