As a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, I was bred to hate the Dallas Cowboys. But as a black man, I now despise them even more, thanks to the hypocritical reaction of Cowboys leadership to NFL players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has since been asked by the NFL to avoid talking about the anthem while the league tries to negotiate a solution with the players union, recently stirred the pot. He did so by declaring that the team’s players must stand with “toes on the line” during the anthem, regardless of the NFL’s policy.
Jones once knelt with his players before the anthem in what was widely viewed as fake solidarity after President Donald Trump criticized the protests. But Jones’ latest statements reminded me that team owners sometimes think and behave like slave owners. And when black Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott essentially backed Jones’ views by saying the anthem was not “the time or the venue” to protest, it reminded me that blacks sometimes adopt the mindset of our oppressors. Therein lies the problem.
The African-American relationship with patriotism is complicated. We’ve spent hundreds of years in a country we built without compensation, living among people who see us as less than human, all while fighting systems designed to treat us as second-class citizens.
Despite this truth, we are expected to view the flag with the same reverence as our white counterparts, and that’s an unrealistic expectation.
While we can love the place that we built, and protect it with our very lives, our relationship with America can never be the same as that of our white counterparts. That’s especially true now, when oppression is documented in video of police killing unarmed blacks, and popularized in the utterances of a president whose rhetoric targets racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.
The national anthem simply does not have the same meaning for black people who continue to fall victim to systemic and institutional racism. That’s why NFL players are protesting, and that’s why it was so heartbreaking to see Prescott, who is black, speak out against those protests with the blissful unawareness of the ignorant.
“I’d never protest,” Prescott said when he was asked to respond to Jones’ anthem demands. “I’d never protest during (the) anthem, and I don’t think that’s the time or the venue to do so. The game of football has always brought me such a peace, and I think it does the same for a lot of people — a lot of people playing the game, a lot of people watching the game, a lot of people that have any impact of the game. So when you bring such a controversy to the stadium, to the field, to the game, it takes away. It takes away from that. It takes away from the joy and the love that football brings a lot of people.”
In my view, Prescott has adopted a view that says a game is more important than black lives. Perhaps he’s doing so because he doesn’t understand the meaning of the protests. So let me reiterate.
NFL players are protesting because men who look like Prescott are being shot and killed by police. They are protesting because money cannot insulate professional athletes from such abuse. Just as police in New York wrestled black tennis pro James Blake to the ground, or NBA rookie Sterling Brown was Tasered and tackled by police in Milwaukee, NFL players such as Prescott can also be the victims of abuse. And it can happen simply because they are black.
That’s not empty rhetoric. It’s based on numerous studies showing that the use of police force is greater for African-Americans than for whites. One such study, called “The Science of Justice: Race, Arrests, and Police Use of Force,” by the Center for Policing Equity, found that police are more than three times as likely to use force on blacks than on whites.
So when black professional athletes such as Dak Prescott ignore that reality, it hurts. It hurts because it shows that for Prescott and others like him, having peace during a football game is more important than having equality in the country we built. It shows that for Prescott and others like him, currying favor with Jerry Jones is more important than maintaining the respect of his community. It shows that for Prescott and others like him, identifying as a Dallas Cowboy is more important than identifying as a black man.
That, more than anything, makes me despise the Dallas Cowboys. If they can strip a black man of his identity in the name of forced patriotism, they will never understand what black protest is all about.
Soloman Jones is a columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, a radio commentator and author.