Many NFL teams demonstrated over the last two days in the wake of Donald Trump’s tirade Friday about protests during the national anthem. One of the most unique displays was the Cowboys’ decision Monday night to kneel before the national anthem, arm in arm, then stand up when the “Star-Spangled Banner” played.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took a knee as well, locked at the elbows with his employees. At one point, as the camera panned down the line of players, he looked at the camera and appeared to smile.
After the start of the game, commissioner Roger Goodell praised the Cardinals and Cowboys, using what has been a common word in NFL team statements lately: “unity.” What has been unclear during the NFL’s demonstrations of unity this weekend is what teams are unifying over. By kneeling with his players, Jones showed that he cared for them. As the team stood for the anthem, however, the meaning of Colin Kaepernick’s initial protest seemed to be lost.
Jones was one of the few NFL owners not to release a statement in response to Trump’s comments, and head coach Jason Garrett has said that he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate for players to protest during the national anthem. (He reiterated the point after the game.) The fiancée of Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick said that players were advised not to kneel during the anthem.
The suggestion, it seemed, was that the important thing was the Cowboys were together ... not what they were together for. Jones was a major Trump donor, giving $1 million to the president’s campaign. By kneeling then standing, he was able to have his cake and eat it, too. That’s the problem with “unity,” as Zito Madu explained Monday:
But then, it’s bemusing why it took Trump for this to happen. Or rather, this unity seems more about the league standing behind an empty word — unity — rather than standing behind the original reason for Kaepernick’s protest. The deep irony of this entire situation is all of this is happening while Kaepernick himself is unemployed, and owners who refused to give him a chance because of his protest, now stand, arms linked, in protest to Trump saying that protesters should be fired.
To be clear, it’s good that Jones supported his employees. It is a good thing that when President Trump told owners to fire their players, they said no and made sure to stand next to them for the eyes of the world to see. But then optics are a part of the reason the thing felt so weird as well.
Even if you believe in Jones’ absolute sincerity, there’s no questioning that he made the most sound decision he could from an optics standpoint. He and his employees still stood for the anthem, something Trump wanted all along, and yet millions saw him take a knee, mirroring players across the league, as if the act of kneeling is truly what is at the crux of this firestorm.
(And one can’t forget that though owners may have refused to take action against their players, the fact that Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job speaks volumes.)
The entire purpose of Kaepernick’s initial protest was to make people feel uncomfortable: to force NFL fans to confront ideas they might not otherwise want to confront at a sporting event. By kneeling during the anthem, he asked that this country start a real dialogue about finding a better version of itself.
Others have attempted to argue that kneeling for the anthem means you hate all police, the military, veterans, or America itself. Kaepernick was always clear in what he was protesting, however: racial injustice and violence against minorities, especially at the hands of police who are paid to protect them.
This weekend, however, the main message seemed to be of sticking together and of owners defending their employees’ rights to free speech. Lost in this seemingly noble gesture is the fact that the owners have done a bad job of acknowledging what, exactly, their employees have been saying all along.
It is important that owners stood — and, however briefly, knelt, in Jones’ case — with their players. It does send a message to fans for whom this is a livewire issue and sends a message to players that the owners, in some ways at least, hear them.
At the same time, I can’t escape the feeling that his purportedly noble display of “unity,” like many over the last two days, could have just as easily been an act of deft branding. Trump created a rally point for owners separate from the initial reasons for the protests and they quickly took arms, sticking by their players without having to say anything about inequality.