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Why Jerry Jones is prized by both sides in the debate over NFL protests

The Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, knelt before the national anthem Sept. 25. (Photo by Matt York/AP)

After Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined his players in taking a knee before a “Monday Night Football” game Sept. 25, Esquire magazine declared that “President Trump is losing the national anthem battle.”

“It was an almost startling image,” wrote associate editor Jack Holmes, “as Jones ... and the entire Cowboys team knelt in solidarity to affirm their rights to free speech and renew the call for equality begun by Colin Kaepernick a year ago.”

A BET headline read: “Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones Changes Tune On National Anthem Protests, Kneels Alongside Team.”

CNN's Christine Brennan told viewers that Jones's demonstration amounted to an “absolute repudiation of the president of the United States,” even though Jones and the Cowboys had returned to their feet during the national anthem.

Two weeks later, Jones, who donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration committee, is being reclaimed by critics of NFL players' protests after he said that “if we are disrespecting the flag, then we won't play. Period.”

Breitbart News made Jones's hard-line stance its lead story on Monday morning.

On “Fox & Friends,” co-host Brian Kilmeade admired Jones's forcefulness.

“They were the ones who came up with this idea that before the game, they would kneel; when the national anthem started, they would stand,” Kilmeade said, recalling the Cowboys' previous display. “Many people thought that was the way forward, but that wasn't good enough for Jerry Jones. He just made it clear: 'I'm not going on the field again. And when it comes to standing for the national anthem, you'll do it or you won't play.'”

People on both sides of the debate over NFL players' protests prize Jones's support — or, at least, the appearance of his support — because he is arguably the most powerful club owner in American sports. Forbes estimates the Cowboys' value at $4.8 billion, more than $1 billion more than the total worth of any other team in the United States.

Last month, ESPN reported that Jones's objections are the reason NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has not yet signed a contract extension. Jones is not a member of the six-owner committee charged with negotiating a deal, yet his influence is so great that he is “a de facto seventh member,” according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

Jones's opinion can make things happen, or not happen, in the NFL, so his view of the protests is important — so important that Trump called Jones after the Sept. 25 game to try to get on the same page.

“He did call,” Jones told a Dallas radio station. “He was complimentary, which doesn't mean that in any way we acquiesced to what he was implying. What we did was exclusive from that. What we wanted to do was basically make a statement and certainly not dishonor the flag.”

Jones added: "There are many things we don't agree on."

Jones is offering something for everyone. Depending on what you want to see, the Cowboys owner is a bulwark against disrespect for the national anthem and the American flag or a champion of players' First Amendment rights.

The big winner in this situation is Jones, who is insulated against external criticism of his ambivalence by the desires of protest sympathizers and critics alike to cast him as an ally. And he is insulated against internal criticism by the power he wields over players' paychecks (NFL contracts, unlike those in other major sports leagues, are not fully guaranteed) and playing time.