Roger Goodell spoke. But nobody speaks for Jerry Jones — and that’s why his silence on kneeling is deafening.

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

You stand for the anthem. Toe on the line.”

It has been nearly two years since Jerry Jones delivered that message, but it stands as the last meaningful point he delivered about his Dallas Cowboys and the topic of player protests. He said it then, so it continues to resonate now: Cowboys players will stand because Jones expects them to stand. Every other team in the league could open the 2020 season with players kneeling against the police brutality that killed George Floyd, but that won’t include Dallas — unless Jones says otherwise.

So we wait. We wait and we wonder where this is going with Dallas because there is no dodging this reality: Jerry Jones is a powerful bellwether for how deep acceptance and change goes in the NFL. What he says and does publicly matters as it gives us an idea of what he’s saying and doing privately in ownership meetings. And given his relationship with President Donald Trump, his voice — or lack of it — can either paint a political target on the league during the election cycle, or signal that even he is willing to push back in 2020.

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Of course, all of this is assuming Jones has something new to say. Which, to be fair, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe 2020 Jerry is the same guy as 2018 Jerry, when he kicked off training camp that summer by sternly declaring to all: “Our policy is that you stand for the anthem, toe on the line.”

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took a knee prior to the national anthem before a game against the Cardinals in 2017. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took a knee prior to the national anthem before a game against the Cardinals in 2017. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Well, attitudes appear to be changing across the NFL about that. Even if Jones’ message hasn’t or won’t.

At the moment, we can’t know whether his compass has changed until someone sticks a camera or microphone in Jones’ face and asks. Which certainly will happen. And given Jerry’s penchant for honesty when he last discussed this issue, maybe that’s why we haven’t heard a peep from him during a period when franchises have done everything but put out statements from the groundskeepers.

That’s not to say the Cowboys franchise has been silent. The team released a well-produced video condemning racism and hatred, and folded in messages from players and others about changing the system. Quarterback Dak Prescott very impressively pledged $1 million toward “police education” and fighting “systemic racism”, while adding in an impassioned collection of Instagram posts on racism, protesting and finding justice for black Americans like Floyd. Elliott later took part in the player-organized video that prompted the NFL to take a stronger stance in the Black Lives Matter movement. And a litany of other Cowboys players shared messages on their social media accounts, many of which were reflective and personal.

As that ocean of response expanded, Jerry Jones became an island within it. As others have banded together, his silence has left him noticeably apart.

Separated from other team owners who made personal statements.

Separated from the league office, which definitively pushed the player-driven video and Goodell’s response.

Maybe even separated from his own team, which has seen others speak specific words or make pointed gestures that Jones hasn’t.

And this matters because it leaves everyone to wonder if Jones is standing on his catalogue of previous remarks. Ones that were often mixed and confusing. Where Jones made statements of support for the league’s move toward social justice reform, but added that he wouldn’t let his players air their grievances though kneeling protests. Where Jones expressed frustrations at Trump’s use of the NFL as a political prop, but then lent his name to Trump’s wonky (and basically mythical) COVID-19 “committee for the reopening of America.”

It can all seem opaque at times, unless you’re willing to accept that Jones isn’t dialing his compass in with anything but his own business intuition. If you can accept that, then you know Jones will support players until it jeopardizes his bottom lines of winning and making money. He’ll support a president if that president is good for his business interests. He’ll support a league office and fellow team owners if the league office and fellow team owners serve the long-term interest of his NFL cash cow.

But that’s also what makes Jerry’s latest silence so deafening. When everyone else is stepping forward, the individuality that he is often celebrated for is missing. And that’s suggestive of two possibilities.

On one hand, maybe Jones is stuck in 2017 and has nothing new to add to the conversation. Maybe the Cowboys are collectively hiding him while Charlotte Jones takes the reins of this latest foray into the social justice space. And maybe Jones will make all of that apparent the next time he speaks and someone asks him if his ironclad stance on kneeling remains.

On the other hand, maybe Jerry is sitting back and measuring the landscape. Maybe he’s doing the math and realizing that Trump’s presidential bully pulpit may be taken away in a few months. And that, well, the Cowboys are going to endure in 2021 and well beyond. Maybe Jones is considering that his fans are going to support his players before they’re going to support him — and that if Elliott or Prescott defies his “toe on the line” mandate, a large portion of the fans might be fine with that.

Time is going to reveal which avenue Jones takes. And it will be every bit as important as what Goodell has said or what the commissioner does in the coming months, because as much as Goodell can take it upon himself to say “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong…”, everyone knows he actually means “We, the National Football League outside of Dallas, admit we were wrong …”

Nobody speaks for Jerry Jones, except for Jerry Jones. Right now, he’s not saying anything. That’s a loud statement in itself. But it will change, eventually. Jerry will speak. And for better or worse, we’ll know how deep the NFL’s social change runs, and how vast the newfound acceptance really is.

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