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Jerry Jones plans to make his own rules

Cowboys owner, against NFL policy, says players can’t stay in locker room during national anthem

Like clockwork, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones tossed another log onto the white-hot mess that is the NFL’s national anthem policy. By announcing that Cowboys players must stand on the field when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is performed, Jones provided the NFL Players Association with its latest victory in a battle the union may not have to put in any effort to win. Owners are doing all the work for the players.

Addressing reporters to kick off Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, California, Jones revealed he would flout the policy he voted to approve in May. Jones said the team’s players cannot remain in the locker room during the anthem, which is permitted under the revised language in the league’s game operations manual. “Our policy is that you stand at the anthem,” Jones said, “toe on the line.”

Jones, however, didn’t lay out what the Cowboys would do to players who violate a team policy that contradicts the NFL’s policy. And for now, he doesn’t have to explain how the Cowboys plan to unfairly discipline players who follow NFL rules.

That’s because the NFL is grappling with what to do about a policy that has failed faster than any in the recent memory of professional sports. After the uproar last week when it was revealed that the Miami Dolphins are considering suspending players a maximum of four games for violating the new policy, the league backed off on implementing the updated rules. And it finally enlisted the NFLPA’s help to develop something better than the unsustainable approach the owners devised.

“The optics of owners punishing players on a whim for taking principled, peaceful stands on social-justice issues — that the NFL has condoned — are not good for a league that has been on the wrong side of history far too often. Jones continues to prove he’s at the front of the line of owners who still just don’t get it.”

While the NFL and the union work through the issue (during the process, the union’s grievance against the NFL also is on hold), the Cowboys won’t have to submit paperwork to the league office with a discipline schedule for players who violate the policy. The Dolphins were out there because they listed the maximum penalty on their filing: conduct detrimental to the club, which, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, includes a four-game suspension without pay. The Dolphins had not committed to such severe discipline, team officials said. They merely listed it to leave open the option. But even if the Dolphins go with the maximum punishment, they would at least be in compliance with the rules by disciplining players for demonstrating on the sideline. What Jones said was that the Cowboys just plan to go rogue.

The policy permits players to remain in the locker room without fear of facing discipline. The locker room is supposed to be a safe harbor for players and other team personnel who, under the changes approved in May, are required to stand for the anthem if they are on the field this season but are uncomfortable doing so. (The previous policy did not mandate that players stand.) Clubs will be subject to a fine if a player or any other member of an organization fails to show respect for the anthem.

The crux of the NFLPA’s grievance is that the new policy infringed on the players’ rights. Then the owner of both the NFL’s and professional sports’ most valuable franchise announces he’s going his own way and Cowboys players had better get in line.

Besides buttressing the union’s case, Jones’ comments further exposed the lack of unity among owners. Both the New York Jets and New York Giants have said they will not mete out any disciplinary action against players who violate the policy by demonstrating on the field to shine a light on racial injustice. On the other extreme is Jones, who plans to punish players who are in compliance with the rules. With this type of stress on both ends of the policy, how can the middle hold?

Jones is known for breaking with the pack when it suits his interests. He has at times run afoul of his fellow owners and commissioner Roger Goodell. And almost from the moment then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first demonstrated almost two years ago, Jones has made his position crystal clear: The Cowboys had better not kneel. Or else.

This, though, is different.

Jones can’t unilaterally implement a team policy that is in conflict with NFL policy. That doesn’t work in the world of collective bargaining. Undoubtedly, the union’s lawyers will remind their counterparts who represent the owners.

No matter what the NFL ultimately decides about the policy after its lengthy back-and-forth work with the NFLPA (reverting to the former policy makes the most sense), Goodell will have to get Jones, and other hard-liners willing to die on this hill, back in line. The optics of owners punishing players on a whim for taking principled, peaceful stands on social-justice issues — that the NFL has condoned — are not good for a league that has been on the wrong side of history far too often. Jones continues to prove he’s at the front of the line of owners who still just don’t get it.

“I, like everybody,” Jones said Wednesday, “would like for it [protests during the anthem] to go away.”

The players who have demonstrated would like the underlying reasons for their demonstrations to go away. And breaking the rules to punish them won’t help owners win the messaging battle.

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