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‘Trump can’t divide this’: Cowboys, along with owner Jerry Jones, kneel before anthem in Arizona

The Cowboys, along with owner Jerry Jones, center, take a knee before the national anthem. (Matt York/AP)

The Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones added a distinctive wrinkle to the NFL’s national anthem demonstrations Monday night, with Jones, Coach Jason Garrett and other coaches and front office executives taking a knee in unison before the anthem, then rising and locking arms as it was being performed.

Some in the crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., where the Cowboys were playing the Cardinals, booed at the display. Arizona players also stood and linked arms during the anthem, but they did not take a knee beforehand.

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Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant stressed that the decision “was a team thing” that was a direct response to comments and tweets by President Trump over the weekend.

“I feel like that’s the true definition of unity,” Bryant said. “Trump can’t divide this.”

“I think sports show the perfect example of unity. It’s not just black NFL players, it’s different races. I feel like that was a clear shot at Trump, sitting on that knee like that because you just can’t do that,” Bryant said (via the Dallas Morning News) after Dallas’ 28-17 victory. “[What Trump said was] super disrespectful. We showed great unity tonight. That’s what that was for. I feel like that was needed. … We’re not going to let a guy like that tear us apart. Not just us but this whole entire league. We’re a prime example of positive people. … He should have never said that. It was a clear punch in the face. I feel like we made up for that.”

The team, like most others across the league, had the support of its owner.

“Our players wanted to make a statement about unity and we wanted to make a statement about equality,” Jones said at a postgame news conference. “They were very much aware that statement, when made or when attempted to be made in and a part of the recognition of our flag, cannot only lead to criticism but also controversy.

“It was real easy for everybody in our organization to see that the message of unity, the message of equality was getting, if you will, pushed aside or diminished by the controversy. We even had the circumstances that it was being made into a controversy.”

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The demonstration did not escape the notice of President Trump, who was tweeting about it, as well as the Senate election in Alabama and the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, early Tuesday morning and ended up calling for the NFL to “set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!”

He began at 6:28 a.m. EDT, writing: “Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected! The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was the loudest I have ever heard. Great anger.”

He went on to add: “But while Dallas dropped to its knees as a team, they all stood up for our National Anthem. Big progress being made — we all love our country!”

The Cowboys were the latest team to make a show of unity or protest since Trump said Friday at a campaign rally in Alabama that owners should fire players who refuse to stand for the anthem. He reiterated that in tweets over the weekend, calling for fans to boycott games until owners fire or suspend players. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans were not on the field for the anthem before their games Sunday. Many players on other teams chose to kneel while other teams demonstrated unity with players standing with interlocked arms. Several owners stood on the sideline with their players and locked arms with them, but Jones became the first to take a knee.

“We planned and it was executed according to plan that we would go out and kneel in prayer, or kneel and basically stand and make the statement regarding the need for unity and the need for equality,” the 74-year-old owner said. “Then we immediately turned around, stood up, walked over to the sideline.

“And that big American flag, it came down that field, and we all stood toes-out on the field and recognized and respected the American flag and the national anthem. So it was a coordinated effort. It was planned and it was executed at the same time that our team was getting ready to play this Cardinal team. I’m very proud of it.”

The Cowboys’ plan, which Jones brought to the NFL’s attention beforehand, was formulated during a series of meetings Sunday and Monday, according to a person familiar with the planning. Some included players only. Some involved team captains only. Garrett met with all the players.

The Cowboys “tossed around ideas” and sought a solution that promoted unity while satisfying both the group of players who wanted to kneel for the anthem and the group that wanted to stand. Once the compromise was reached, members of the Cowboys’ ownership group discussed the plan with representatives of the Cardinals’ ownership, the person with knowledge of the planning said.

U.S. athletes have a long history of protesting during the national anthem. Here is how some competitors have used their platform to protest. (Video: Taylor Turner, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The demonstrations were a remarkable — and rare — show of unity between players and management. “Everyone should know, including the president, this is what real locker room talk is,” Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said in a conference call with reporters earlier Monday.

He added that the on-field demonstrations and the discussions behind them showed the ability of the league office, owners, players and the NFL Players Association to work cooperatively in a crisis. He said there would be no league-imposed discipline for those teams or players that did not participate in the anthem Sunday. The NFL’s game operations manual requires all players to be on the sideline for the playing of the anthem.

“We also believe our players have a right to express themselves,” Lockhart said.

Graphic: Who kneeled and who stood on every NFL sideline

During the game, a pair of NFL players, both of whom have been outspoken on social issues in the past, noted that the Cowboys had been booed for kneeling before the anthem was performed. Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said on Twitter that the “hot take” Monday was “predicated on assumption booing fans knew the Cowboys would rise.” He added, “Regardless, we agree it isn’t about the anthem to them.”

“Tonight taught me that it ain’t about the anthem,” Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith tweeted, “folks just don’t want to hear about it.”

Long and Smith were joined by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie Sunday as the team stood and linked arms during the anthem before a game against the New York Giants. “I think that says a lot about him,” Smith said Sunday of Lurie, “the man he is and the change he’s trying to create in this city.”

“As a teammate, you got to listen and you have to support them. You might not agree 100 percent,” said Long, who has put his arm around Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins while the latter raised his fist during the anthem. “I tend to agree with a lot of what’s being protested, but I think it was a good day to show solidarity.”

Earlier on Monday evening, Trump had taken to Twitter to claim that there was a “tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country.” After players demonstrated at every NFL game Sunday, some pointed to Trump’s comments Friday in Alabama, at which he urged NFL owners to get the “son of a bitch” off the field if a player declined to stand for the anthem.

Before Monday, no Dallas player had staged an anthem protest, and on Saturday, Garrett indicated that he did not expect any before the game against the Cardinals. However, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported around midday Monday that situation had “changed as some Cowboys plan to show solidarity with their brethren across the league in a silent rebuke to Trump for what is now a three-day attack on the NFL and players.”

“We have to do something,” one anonymous player told the newspaper. Another added, “It’s not going to be business as usual. He crossed a line. Something will be done.”

Many NFL owners, including some known to be close to Trump, issued statements over the weekend objecting to the president’s comments. Jones, though, was not among them, and last week he told Fox Business, “I do not think the place to express yourself in society is as we recognize the American flag. … So that’s not the place to do anything other than honor the flag and everybody that’s given up a little bit for it.” Jones reportedly was among the NFL owners who contributed to Trump’s inauguration.

Garrett said Monday that the Cowboys’ planning for their demonstration was not completed until shortly before kickoff.

“It literally took us up until an hour or so prior to the game to say, ‘Okay, this is what the plan is. We want everybody together. We don’t want to be offensive to anyone. We don’t want to step on the Arizona Cardinals’ plan for what they wanted to do,’ ” Garrett said at his postgame news conference.

“And we just felt like after we got introduced, we felt like we could all come together. We’d go out to the numbers and take a knee and have a moment of silence. And then after that, go back to our place. The way we typically handle the national anthem is toes on the line. We chose today to lock arm in arm and be respectful of the flag, be respectful of the anthem and everything that it represents.”

Charlotte Jones Anderson, a Cowboys executive and the daughter of the owner, told ESPN’s Lisa Salters before the game that the team would take a knee “as a statement for equality and as a representation of unity.” According to Salters, Anderson said that the players wanted to “separate that message from the national anthem.”

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