Jerry Jones has said that any Cowboys player who protests during the anthem would be benched. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Although Jerry Jones reportedly encouraged other NFL owners to agree to alter the league’s policy on player conduct during the national anthem, to formally punish those who refuse to stand, he left the annual meetings last week without commenting on the lack of a change. However, the Dallas Cowboys owner, who has vowed to bench any of his players who protest during the anthem, said Sunday that he believes there’s “no question” the demonstrations are hurting the NFL.

“There is no question the league is suffering negative effects from these protests,” Jones told Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in his first public comments on the issue since the owners meetings.

“I care about a lot of things,” Jones said. “But our ability to be substantive is based on having a strong NFL, a league that people are really interested in and want to watch games. At all times, if I am anything, I am first and foremost a proponent of making the NFL strong. Making us have as many people watching the game as we can and watching in light of what we are doing and that’s playing football.

“If all this makes you stronger to represent messages, let’s don’t do it in a way that tears down the strength of the NFL.”

Going into this weekend’s games, NFL ratings were down 7.5 percent from a similar period last year, according to Nielsen (via ESPN), and down 18.7 percent from the first six weeks of the 2015 season. President Trump has made a frequent issue of the protests, in which players have sat or knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to draw attention to issues of racial injustice, and his constant criticism has kept the league at the forefront of a national debate team owners would prefer to see die down.

Jones told the Star-Telegram that at “all times,” he wants to “do the right thing” by his team’s sponsors “and their customers,” adding, “I have a great responsibility to the people who support us. We all get great benefits from having a lot of people watch our games. All of us do.”

According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, at the recent meetings “Jones was the only owner to rail against the handful of players who are still regularly kneeling, standing or staying in the locker room during the playing of the anthem.” La Canfora reported that an NFL executive told him, “Jerry made it clear he wants [standing for the anthem] enforced and wants the NFL to compel all players to stand.”

However, when the meetings ended Wednesday, the league announced that it had made no change to its policy, which encourages players to stand but does not mandate it. “We believe everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said, but New York Giants owner John Mara noted, “I think 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.”

Earlier in the month, Jones issued this threat to his Cowboys: “If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won’t play. Period.” He subsequently claimed that Trump had personally reminded him of the league’s policy on anthem conduct, and in turn, the president has tweeted out praise for Jones for the latter’s hard-line team policy.

On Sunday, Cowboys defensive lineman David Irving followed through on a promise to stage some sort of anthem protest, but in a way that didn’t “disrespect the flag.” Per reports, he held a fist over his heart during the song, then briefly raised it after it ended. At least six members of the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas’s opponent, knelt during the anthem.

There were sporadic protests elsewhere in the league, as three members of the Miami Dolphins — Kenny Stills, Julius Thomas and Michael Thomas — stayed in the tunnel during the anthem, while Rishard Matthews of the Tennessee Titans remained in the locker room. Several members of the New Orleans Saints knelt before the anthem then stood and linked arms for the song, as Jones and his Cowboys had themselves done last month.

Seven members of the Seattle Seahawks sat on a bench on the sideline during the anthem. One of those players, Michael Bennett, said, “It’s always been about justice and discrimination in America, police brutality, women’s rights, all these different issues — clean water; Flint, Michigan — issues that are pertaining to America that we all need to pay attention to, because it’s not that it happens to one of us that [means] it’s important. It’s important every single day, regardless of what we’ve got going on.”

“There will be ongoing discussions about how to address the real issues,” Jones said Sunday. “Some of the issues that have happened around the flag have taken the message away from what we all want to see done better.”

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