Dallas Cowboys players and staff, including owner Jerry Jones, center, take a knee before the singing of the National Anthem at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sept. 25 in Glendale, Ariz. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

NFL owners engaged in window dressing over protests

After much talk of forging a compromise to stop players in the NFL from kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality, the league punted.

Though NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had previously floated the idea in a letter to team owners about changing NFL rules to force players to stand for the anthem, the idea wasn’t discussed at Tuesday’s league meetings, Goodell told reporters. Instead, players and owners discussed ways to enhance players’ platforms for speaking out on social justice issues.

That’s a good thing, because in my view, the national anthem controversy is not about the flag or a song. It is about politics and power. It is about elderly white men in the White House, the NFL and beyond exercising their desire to tell black men what we should believe and how we should express it.

That is the mentality of the slave master, and that mindset must always be challenged.

I’m glad that the NFL owners invited players to meet with them during the meetings in New York and spoke of ways to promote social change. I’m glad the owners lent their support to a bipartisan bill that would — if passed by Congress and signed by the president — reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

But I believe all of that is window dressing to obscure the fact that some NFL team owners, like slave masters before them, are driven by the ruthless pursuit of profit, and black bodies are their stock and trade.

The same racism that shut black men out of the NFL for decades now drives NFL owners to view their players — most of whom are now black — as commodities to be bought and sold, to be placed on auction blocks and examined like chattel, to be callously disposed of when their bodies no longer work.

President Donald Trump understood this, and, in a move that is emblematic of his most effective political strategy, he used those black players and their peaceful protest to drive a wedge between the black men who play the game, the owners who profit from it and the legions of white fans who unify around the ritual of football.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,’” Trump said at an Alabama rally for then-Senate candidate Luther Strange. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

It was farcical to watch Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones kneel in supposed solidarity with the players in the wake of Trump’s comments. Especially after we learned that Jones, through a corporation, had contributed $1 million to Trump’s presidential campaign.

Jones, like seven other NFL owners who gave to Trump’s campaign, supported Trump’s presidential run even though Trump repeatedly made racially insensitive remarks, including Trump’s assertion that a Mexican judge couldn’t do his job because of his ethnicity. Even Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called that a “textbook definition of a racist comment.”

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when NFL owners who’d seemingly stood up to the president did an abrupt about-face.

At least a quarter of those owners already supported the president’s agenda.

On the same day Trump orchestrated Vice President Mike Pence’s stunt to leave an Indianapolis Colts game in protest when players kneeled during the national anthem, Jones showed his true sentiments.

Jones, who’d knelt on the field with players just two weeks before, made a snarling statement, threatening to bench any player who did not stand during the anthem.

“But if there is anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones said. “You understand? If we are disrespecting the flag then we won’t play. Period.”

I suspect that Jones is more concerned with public opinion and its potential impact on his bottom line than he is with the flag. After all, the NFL is projected to generate $17 billion in revenue this year.

But I also think that Jones conflated the idea of owning a team and owning the black men who play for the team.

No matter how well paid they are, the players are employees, not slaves, and they should be allowed to think for themselves.

For now, at least, the NFL seems to understand that. I only hope that in the space between rhetoric and nationalism, between sports and politics, Jones and others like him will come to appreciate that we must never allow anyone to stifle the peaceful protest of Americans.

Otherwise, what does the flag represent?

Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may email him at sj@solomonjones.com.

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