Jerry Jones is lone rebel in group of NFL owners who can thwart progress amid anthem debate

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

NEW YORK – When the NFL’s fall meetings drew to a close Wednesday, Jerry Jones was nowhere to be found. His Dallas Cowboys franchise had just been gifted the 2018 NFL draft and cameras eagerly awaited his descent down the winding staircase at the Conrad hotel in Lower Manhattan. But as other owners whisked through the lobby to their black car services and headed for private jets, Jones had vanished.

Instead, Jones took the side exit and played the outlier, which turned out to be his consistent path in these fall NFL meetings.

The guy who cornered the NFL into this week’s critical agenda remains the guy who could do it again. Or worse, blow up the path forward.

Jerry Jones has a rule for the Cowboys: Stand during the anthem or there will be consequences. (Getty Images)

While other owners took moments to publicly share optimism about the direction of the league and its engagement with players on the social activism front, Jones remained silent and evasive. Not because the Cowboys owner had nothing to say. But because Jones had nothing new to say. And nothing good can come for the NFL if Jones repeats himself on the national anthem debate that took center stage this week. The owners seem to understand that. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell certainly knows it. So this became the prudent choice Wednesday: Jerry taking the side exit on the entire issue for now, lest he blow up the progress that his fellow billionaires feel they are achieving.

That’s where the anthem debate has seemed to have settled, without a vote on standards and practices – and most certainly without a unanimous front. Thanks in large part to Jones, who is dug in deep and still not in favor of changing how he does business.

You only needed to hear the language at the end of the meetings to understand where Jones stands now – on an island, left alone as the only team owner inclined to discipline players for any form of protest during the anthem. So much so that when New York Giants co-owner John Mara shared sweeping optimism over the meetings, he couldn’t speak without a clause in the mix. The Jerry Jones holdout clause.

Most of us … ”

Almost every owner … ”

Just about every team … ”

Inside that language you could have inserted the phrases “except Jerry” or “aside from the Cowboys” and not have to worry about accuracy. In a nutshell, most owners except Jones were happy where the meetings with players went. Almost every owner except Jones was OK with the lack of hardened rules regarding protests. And just about every team could see a positive direction forward, aside from the Cowboys.

That’s what was gathered this week. That while NFL owners all want players to embrace the anthem, they recognize that the journey to that end is partnering with the players to make it happen. By listening rather than threatening. By engaging rather than ruling. That might not be a popular response among a segment of the fan base, but owners have come to the conclusion that it’s certainly more progressive than waging a war over freedom of speech.

“Most of us believe that attempting to force the players to do something that they don’t want to do is not going to be effective in the long run,” Mara said Wednesday. “The better policy going forward is to try to have dialogue with them – to try to show them that we’re willing to work with them on some of these issues that all of us are concerned about. … At the end of the day, this is America and we do have something called the First Amendment. The right of free speech and the right to protest is something our forefathers fought and died for.”

Giants co-owner John Mara (L) told reporters how he has softened his stance over players protesting during the national anthem. (AP)

That’s a significant statement from Mara. He didn’t always feel that way. Lest anyone forget, he was one of the first owners to admit that he was keenly aware of backlash for signing a kneeling player such as Colin Kaepernick. And Mara admitted again on Wednesday that when protests first began, he was one of the guys who wanted to make a stand against it. A Jerry Jones stand, if you will.

Now, after talking with Giants players and then sitting among a group this week and exchanging hopes and ideas, his position has moved. And that is a sentiment that is being shared by more NFL owners now than ever before. From fellow Giants owner Steve Tisch to San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the voices in the public realm continue to move more toward understanding.

“My position has evolved a little bit,” Mara said. “I think when [kneeling] first happened, I probably had a little more of a hard-line position on it. But since I’ve spoken to players and heard what they’ve had to say and tried to understand what it is that they’re protesting, I think my position has, to be honest, evolved a little bit.”

Make no mistake, the owners wish Jones would evolve, too. For many reasons. Chief among them, they would rather he didn’t make public pronouncements of striking down anthem protests within his franchise – if only to preserve the good will that seemed to grow between owners and players this week. The NFL would also like to disengage from President Donald Trump’s weekly political agenda, which has consistently taken shots at the league and its players. Jones has not only opened the door for Trump to assail the league, but he has become an instrument of those attacks by aligning himself with that agenda.

You can bet that’s part of why Jones took the side exit Wednesday. He’s the only guy that’s not on message, not rowing in the same direction, and most certainly not feeling the flowery optimism shared by his fellow owners. And that continues to make him the wedge that invites Trump through the door and into the league’s business. And Jones isn’t moving. He still believes that players can and should be disciplined for protesting during the anthem. And if it happens in his franchise, he’s still capable of following through on a threat that would unravel everything and draw the NFL into a potential legal war. And as bad for business as protests might be now, a full-blown fight with players or the NFL Players Association might be worse.

As Mara put it, “No question it’s had an impact on the business. But it’s an important social issue and I think sometimes you have to put the interest of your business behind the interest of issues that are more important than that.”

For now, Jones isn’t putting his business as the lesser priority. That’s his prerogative. But that also makes him a threat at the moment. A threat to the understanding and compromise the rest of the owners are working toward. A threat to a consensus that sees a road forward and a win for everyone involved.

On Wednesday, that threat took the side exit and the silent path out. But tomorrow’s another day. There will be another camera and another microphone and another opportunity to descend down that staircase and blow up progress.

Jerry Jones did it once. Ever the outlier, he could do it again.

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