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Prohibiting protests is all about maintaining control for Jerry Jones

“We're going to respect the flag and I'm going to create the perception of it."

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It was only a matter of time before Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said what he said on Sunday: That if anyone on his team “disrespects the flag, then we will not play.”

Jones’ declaration (which I will be surprised if more NFL owners don’t also eventually make) was bound to happen. It was inevitable that least one of these head honchos would soon have had enough of players protesting police brutality against minorities by kneeling or raising a fist while the national anthem plays before games. And it was not shocking that Jones was the first to do so.

An owner could say he’s against protests because he’s concerned about his businesses’ bottom line, even though financial arguments don’t hold much water. Washington owner Dan Snyder tried this after President Donald Trump said owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired,” if a player did anything besides stand up straight with his hand over his heart when the Star Spangled Banner played.

An owner could also say he wants to appease the portion of his fanbase that sees the protests as disrespectful to the flag, even though the 49ersEric Reid recently made it very clear in an Op-Ed for The New York Times that that the whole point of the protests was to be as respectful to the flag as possible.

Jones went the flag route. But I suspect the real reason he wants to stop players from protesting is mostly to maintain control. He’s built his fortune by being the man in charge. Ceding some power to his players and allowing them to control their narrative would require a) acknowledging and caring about inconvenient truths, the way the players who are protesting systemic injustice are asking viewers to do, and b) giving up some ownership of his team’s party line.

Jones doesn’t seem to have much interest in doing any of this. He tried to pretend he cared about more than retaining his power when he took the field with the Cowboys a few weeks ago and linked arms with players before their game against the Cardinals. He knelt for a moment, then he and everyone who works for him stood as “Oh say can you see…” began to play. A giant American flag waved over the Texas gridiron.

You could tell Jones just wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. He smugly looked into the camera as he knelt beside the men who make him money. He thought he had squared the circle. Old Jerry got us again.

Except that few people bought it. Thinking Jones (who donated $1 million to Trump’s campaign) suddenly wanted to join this protest in earnest would be like painting spots on a zebra and letting yourself believe doing so negated the stripes underneath. It would be like painting the white roses red and then convincing yourself they grew that way.

What Jones thought was a clever cure-all didn’t work. He and other NFL owners who preached “unity” were just whitewashing the original point of the protests. As one of my colleagues Zito Madu wrote, “this unity seems more about the league standing behind an empty word — unity — rather than standing behind the original reason for Kaepernick’s protest.” With his theatrics, Jones didn’t even appease fans angry about players who take a knee. The crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium booed the kneeling even when the anthem wasn’t playing.

So on Sunday, Jones dropped all pretense and finally said the thing he’s probably wanted to say all along, which is that if one of his players “disrespects the flag,” that player will not play football. He doubled down on Monday, expanding on his original statements to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, and admitting that he thought he’d solved the problem by linking arms.

Jones seems to have been inspired by Trump’s recent tirades against the NFL and by Vice President Mike Pence, who toed Trump’s line when he staged a bullshit and expensive walk-out stunt during the Colts game this weekend. Jones certainly echoed Trump and Pence’s logic that these protests were somehow maligning the nation’s flag or the troops, which they could not condone. How rich. For Trump, who went after the family of a four-star general and called prisoner of war John McCain “not a war hero” to say that football players advocating justice for other Americans aren’t honoring this nation is beyond hypocritical.

But perhaps it wasn’t that Jones was capitulating to Trump’s hare-brained, rally-shouted, tweeted demands. Maybe Trump didn’t force his hand, he just gave Jones a political talking point for taking back full control of his team’s “perception.” Jones’ statements were probably just about making sure he, not any of the athletes who work for him, is the one calling the shots. He wants to own the team and its story, and spoke on Monday as though players were children whom he felt a moral obligation to protect from themselves.

If Jones does care at all about the flag, he probably cares about the flag as it relates to his brand. The Cowboys are, after all, America’s team. It’s the big star on the helmet. It’s the red, white, and blue.

Correction: This article originally stated that Jones linked arms at AT&T Stadium. The game against the Cardinals was in Arizona.