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Jerry Jones adds another element to most divisive issue facing the NFL

Cowboys owner tells players to stand during anthem or be benched

ARLINGTON, Texas — Well, Jerry Jones sure turned up the heat.

The outspoken Dallas Cowboys owner vowed on Sunday to bench any player who protests during the national anthem, adding another explosive element to the most divisive issue facing the NFL while potentially setting up a showdown with owners and commissioner Roger Goodell on one side and the NFL Players Association on the other.

On a day when the league still wasn’t back to business as usual — the vice president of the United States bolted from a game in Indianapolis in response to players taking a knee, three members of the Miami Dolphins chose to remain in the locker room while their teammates stood on the field, and most of the Green Bay Packers linked arms before defeating the Cowboys here to continue showing unity during these divisive times — Jones, as he often does, stole the show.

“If there is anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” said Jones, surrounded by the usual throng of reporters, television cameras and boom mics outside of the Cowboys’ locker room at AT&T Stadium after his team squandered a 15-point second-quarter lead in losing 35-31 to Green Bay. “Understand? We will not … if we are disrespecting the flag, then we will not play. Period.”

Jones made his strongest public comments yet about his disapproval of the wide-ranging protests. Since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the practice last season by first sitting and then kneeling, many players have demonstrated in an effort to draw attention to the oppression of black and brown people in the U.S.

Opposed to NFL players using their pregame platform to protest racial injustice, President Donald Trump has framed the players’ actions as being disrespectful to the flag, the military, the government and its institutions in general.

Jones’ threats Sunday actually were in response to questions about Vice President Mike Pence, who, under instructions from Trump, cut short his attendance at a Colts game after several players on the visiting San Francisco 49ers dropped to one knee. After the anthem, the former governor of Indiana and his wife abruptly left Lucas Oil Stadium. Trump revealed on Twitter that he asked Pence “to leave the stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him.”

Players and civil rights activists have pointed out that the right to protest peacefully is protected by the Constitution. Based on his forceful comments, Jones, among seven owners who donated at least $1 million to the then president-elect’s inaugural festivities, squarely sides with Trump.

“We cannot, in any way, give the implication that we tolerate disrespecting the flag,” Jones said. “We know that there is a serious debate in this country about those issues, but there is no question in my mind that the [NFL] and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag.”

Under the rules of the NFL’s game operations manual, players are not required to stand for the anthem. Apparently, Jones doesn’t care. In his book, Cowboys players must honor the anthem as he sees fit.

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“Let me be real, real clear: The thing that the National Football League needs to do, and the Dallas Cowboys are going to do, is stand for the flag,” Jones continued. “We’re going to do that. It’s the rules that are on the book. In my opinion.”

Not surprisingly, the union responded swiftly. George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association, took to Twitter to remind the public, including NFL owners and the nation’s two highest-elected officials, that the rights written in the Constitution also apply to NFL players.

Originally issued in response to what many in both the political and sports worlds viewed as a costly stunt by the vice president, the statement, Atallah explained, also aptly applies to Jones’ comments.

“NFL players are union members and part of the labor movement that has woven the fabric of America for generations. Our men and their families are also conscientious Americans who continue to be forces for good through our communities and some have decided to use their platform to peacefully raise awareness to issues that deserve attention,” the statement read.

“It is a source of enormous pride that some of the best conversations about these issues have taken place in our locker rooms in a respectful, civil and thoughtful way that should serve as a model for how all of us can communicate with each other. We should not stifle these discussions and cannot allow our rights to become subservient to the very opinions our Constitution protects. That is what makes us the land of the free and home of the brave.”

For his part, Pence in a statement echoed Trump’s position on the peaceful protests, explaining that he left the “game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem. … While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.”

In response to Trump’s attacks on players, 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 prior to the anthem in taking a knee and locking arms. During the anthem, the Jones family stood arm in arm with the players.

On the Cowboys’ home field Sunday, Aaron Rodgers, the game’s best quarterback and the highest-profile player to publicly say Kaepernick is out of the game because of his politics, teamed with wide receiver Davante Adams on a go-ahead 12-yard touchdown pass with only 11 seconds remaining on the game clock. Shortly before kickoff, most of Green Bay’s players, coaches and support staff opened the game with a display of togetherness.

Said Rodgers, “We’re going to keep doing it.”

Earlier in the day in South Florida, the Dolphins remained prominently in the mix in the NFL’s biggest story.

Last week, Miami players Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas all took a knee. Before Sunday’s 16-10 victory over the visiting Tennessee Titans, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also said it’s time for players to stand: “I think it’s incumbent upon the players today, because of how the public is looking at it, to stand and salute the flag.”

After consulting several of the club’s veteran leaders, head coach Adam Gase also told the Dolphins it’s time to stand again. Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas went their own way: They did not join their teammates.

“It was a decision made that we were going to stand,” Gase said. “And guys who didn’t want to stand stayed back in the locker room.”

For some time, players who have been at the forefront of the movement, such as Stills and Michael Thomas, have said the protests are only part of a much bigger plan to effect positive social change. After the game, Stills doubled down on that message.

“It’s never been about the protest or the flag or any of that,” Stills said. “I just continue to focus on the work that we are doing in the community. We’ve got some plans and things in the works with the NFL. That’s what we’re working on.”

At some point, what happens on the field will again be the most prominent story in the NFL. At this rate, though, don’t count on that happening anytime soon.