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In Cowboys’ locker room, mum’s the word

Players have little to say about Jones’ stance on protests heading into bye week

FRISCO, Texas — On their bye week, the Dallas Cowboys have definitely checked out.

In a mostly empty locker room after practice Wednesday at the team’s opulent training facility here, Cowboys players — the few who were willing to speak with reporters on the record, that is — mostly answered, “No comment” when pressed about owner Jerry Jones’ new hard-line stance on protesting during the national anthem and two team meetings held earlier in the day for them to voice concerns about the untenable situation. By vowing to bench anyone who kneels during the song, Jones essentially challenged the manhood of players who have mostly toed the corporate line while others in the NFL have taken the lead in the fight for racial justice.

As tumbleweeds blew through the cavernous space that resembled a ghost town and YG & Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT (F— Donald Trump)” blasted on cornerback Orlando Scandrick’s speakers, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, the second-year stars around whom the team’s offense is built, declined to address, well, anything. Wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, high-profile players whose opinions also would have been sought, were nowhere to be found. The Cowboys are off until their Oct. 22 game at San Francisco.

With the top-of-the-roster veterans unwilling to engage about Jones’ shocking comments — under league rules and U.S. labor law, NFL owners cannot discipline players for demonstrating during the anthem — kicker Dan Bailey, one of six team captains and the Cowboys’ NFL Players Association (NFLPA) player representative, tiptoed carefully through the minefield.

The situation both with the Cowboys and regarding players across the NFL kneeling in an effort to draw attention to racial inequality in the U.S. “is an ongoing discussion as far as the union is concerned,” Bailey said. “We’ve had conference calls and things like that, discussing different issues. Guys from all different teams have spoken up on those calls. We’re just kind of handling it as it unfolds. My first responsibility is to listen [to his teammates] and provide that forum for ’em. My next job is to relay that to the leadership at the NFLPA.”

With none of its stars having a role in the movement, America’s Team has appeared to be among the league’s least woke teams.

In response to President Donald Trump’s attacks on players who have protested peacefully, the NFL in Week 3 came together in a leaguewide display of unity before games. Jones — along with his sons, Stephen and Jerry Jr., and daughter, Charlotte Anderson — joined the team’s players, coaches and staff on the field before the anthem in taking a knee and locking arms. During the anthem, the Jones family stood arm in arm with the players. But since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a nationwide debate by first sitting and then kneeling last season, the Cowboys have not demonstrated during the anthem.

Defensive end David Irving, one of two players who raised their fists at the end of the anthem during last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, acknowledged that Jones shared “a couple of words” with the team. Quickly, Irving realized he had probably revealed too much. “Y’all asking me some tough questions at a tough time right now,” he said.

A source told ESPN.com that Jones in one of the meetings with players and coaches said his stance on the protests was rooted in a desire to play the bad guy and deflect attention away from the players. However, he also stressed that players need to understand the league’s business concerns resulting from fan backlash to the protests.

Besides his polarizing comments on Sunday, Jones also angered some activist-players and civil rights activists by telling ESPN’s Chris Mortensen in a phone call Monday night that players “need consequences” to stand up to peer pressure. Some interpreted Jones’ words to mean that he believes NFL players are incapable of thinking for themselves. The NFL is almost 70 percent black. At the very least, Jones’ words could be interpreted as racially insensitive.

Harry Edwards is troubled by Jones’ handing of the whole situation.

Edwards, a longtime adviser to the 49ers who since the 1960s has been at the forefront of the discussion about race and sports, believes Jones has made a series of major mistakes concerning the NFL’s most divisive issue.

“Between Trump … and the likes of Jerry Jones, the NFL’s black players are being told that they do not have First Amendment rights and, at a minimum, that should they protest, they do not determine their protest mode or message,” Edwards wrote in an email to The Undefeated. “Jerry Jones took a knee before the anthem, in a hypocritical nod to the protest spirit of Kaepernick and other black players, and then stood linking arms with all of the Cowboys’ players in a gesture of unity, about what [is] unclear.

“Now, given Jones’ latest statements, if a player takes a knee before the anthem on his own, clearly in a statement of protest, not unity, is that an acceptable protest gesture to Jones? What about players who are already raising a fist in the air during the anthem? … Jones sees himself as lording over black people working his football field rather than his cotton field — but lording over a plantation system of relationships with his black players nonetheless.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.