Do you remember that secretly recorded meeting between the NFL Players Coalition and ownership? The one where Houston Texans’ owner, Bob MacNair, crammed his foot all the way into the back of his throat and started talking about inmates running prisons? Before those discussions became public, I’d written that I believe Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones is to Colin Kaepernick what International Olympic Committee Chairman, Avery Brundage, was to Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In spite of MacNair getting lit up in all the bad headlines, the reporting on the meeting cemented my suspicions about Jones, and recent events have confirmed them.
Fractures seem to be emerging in the NFL owners’ united front as Donald Trump continues to hammer away at the anti-police brutality protests Colin Kaepernick started by first sitting, then kneeling during the national anthem. The league has backed away from proposed rules that would have seen similar player protests punished by suspensions and fines, and some owners have been vocal about their opposition to the policy. Jerry Jones hasn’t joined this wise retreat. He has barreled forward and announced that all Dallas Cowboys player will stand at attention during the national anthem or risk losing their employment. It’s quite an astonishing capitulation to Donald Trump when one considers how clearly he’s telegraphed that he’s going to keep moving the goalposts on this. As far as Jones has gone, it won’t be enough. There’ll be another news cycle to upend, and Trump will dip into his limited bag of tricks and pull out the NFL player protests. I’m unsure of what Jones believes he’s going to get out of doing this, especially after watching Miami Dolphins’ owner, Stephen Ross, get burned only a week earlier. Jerry Jones isn’t Stephen Ross, though. He’s bigger and brasher.
The great man theory of history (the notion that powerful, highly influential individuals shape the course of history) has persisted for a reason. Human beings like our stories told in certain ways: with protagonists, with heroes and villains. Jerry Jones wants to be one of these great men. If I had to guess, I’d say Jones sees himself as more of an antihero, and he believes himself to be the protagonist in every situation he finds himself in. He’s a wily, old oil man who grew up dirt poor in Arkansas and now owns the most valuable sports franchise on the planet. He’s gotten himself into and out of more scrapes than any of us can imagine. He’s also incredibly high-handed and used to being obeyed. He strives to be a great man, but he’s merely a grandiose one. It’s obscured his judgment, and he doesn’t understand that this isn’t his story. He is not in control. From a certain angle, he appears to be, though, and he believes he is, just like Avery Brundage did at the 1968 Olympics.
When I first compared Jones to Brundage, I shared this brief introduction to Brundage:
For the unfamiliar, Avery Brundage was an American Olympian who dedicated his life to the games and eventually rose to lead the International Olympic Committee. Brundage, then head of the Amateur Athletic Union, vouched for Nazi Germany’s commitment to Olympic principles in the run-up to the 1936 Berlin games, essentially arguing that Hitler and his accomplices were “very fine people.”
Brundage used his position as the president of the IOC to threaten the U.S. national team with expulsion from the 1968 games if its leaders didn’t punish Tommie Smith and John Carlos for protesting racial inequality by raising their fists in the Black power salute during their medal ceremony. Brundage eventually bullied the U.S. Olympic Committee into suspending Smith and Carlos from the team and sending them home.
Brundage was also the driving force behind keeping the Olympics amateur and refused to countenance the idea that athletes should be paid for their labor, earning him the nickname “Slavery Avery”.
Do you see how history repeats itself?
Avery Brundage was another man who wanted to be great and believed he was. History has largely forgotten him, though, and, when he is mentioned, it is rarely in a positive light. Hindsight wipes the Vaseline off the lens and reveals all the sharp edges and harsh shadows.
“Who holds the handle and who holds the blade?” This is a question that gets asked when probing matters to do with power and who wields it. Jerry Jones holds the handle in nearly every room he enters. It’s probably been decades since he’s really had to grasp a sharpened blade and risk being cut and bleeding. The kind of wealth he possesses, the bubble it creates around a person, and the sycophants and yes-men it attracts warp how reality is perceived. It takes a huge dose of self-awareness and even more effort to maintain perspective. It’s one thing for no-name football fans who burned Kaepernick’s jerseys not to appreciate the gravity of this particular moment in history, it’s quite another for someone as obsessed with legacy as Jerry Jones is to have lost the plot so comprehensively. Especially given his age. He lived through Civil Rights 1.0. He was an adult. He should be able to game this out to the end. The parallels couldn’t be any clearer.
Colin Kaepernick and his brothers-in-arms are the heroes in this subplot of the Civil Rights 2.0 story. They are the Davids to seemingly insuperable Goliaths. Jerry Jones likely subscribes to the great man theory of history, and what he needs to understand is that the future American History module discussing this moment will search for a clear antagonist. Donald Trump will be one, yes. But this particular story is also about labor rights — about unemployment and the withholding of millions of dollars of wages being wielded as punishment for silent political protests. This story cannot be told without addressing the relationship between the NFL’s owners and the players.
When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, his adversary was a system of racist policing. It’s a nebulous target, one that’s difficult to wrap your arms around fully. When the NFL blackballed Kaepernick, the league as a whole became the antagonist. Jerry Jones has narrowed the field even further and raced out to the front of the pack and demanded to play the role of the bullying villain. When this all turns (and it will), he’ll find that he didn’t set himself up as the strongman but as the scapegoat.
One of the more prescient observations I’ve heard about the NFL’s protest saga (and I wish I remembered who said it so I could properly credit them) is that Colin Kaepernick exposes people. It’s something people who don’t talk much accomplish by letting others fill the silence. What Colin Kaepernick’s protest has exposed about Jerry Jones is that the only currencies he understands are money and power, and he thinks amassing both is the path to greatness. Jones has a relationship with Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is the President of the United States. Being close to that kind of power, feeling he might influence it, feeling like he might benefit from it is all Jones seems to care about. This means all his posturing about the national anthem is phony. There’s a deep hypocrisy at play here. It’s why after threatening to cut players who didn’t show proper respect for the national anthem, Jones was caught out with his cap on when the anthem was played at Cowboys’ training camp.
The clown show we’ve been watching unfold isn’t completely Jones’ fault, but a lot of it is. Not only has he been pressing Donald Trump’s agenda, he championed Roger Goodell, largely recognized as the worst commissioner in pro sports, and Goodell has fumbled the protest issue every step of the way. It’s not unfair to leave the bill for cleaning up this mess at Jones’ door, and it may be steeper than he’s prepared to pay. Jones has lorded his position as owner of the most valuable franchise over the other owners too many times for them not to shove him under the bus (with gleeful malice) when the time comes. And I think they will, because the NFL will eventually have to distance itself sharply from Donald Trump.
There are migrant children in internment camps on American soil. Immigration judges are being asked to pretend toddlers can understand what’s happening in their cases. Children have been shipped all over the country. Some of their parents have been deported without them. Records concerning these matters are being destroyed. There are gathering reports of widespread abuse — forced drugging of detained children, a baby’s hygiene being neglected so badly he was covered in body lice, sexual assaults. No one is saying where most of the older girls are. This is what we know. When what we don’t know comes out, every prominent person who stood shoulder to shoulder with the people who orchestrated this and other atrocities while demanding everyone salute the flag will go down as a villain of history. Jerry Jones won’t be able to grin and charm his way out of it. There’ll be too many knives out for him. There will be too many other people who’ll need someone to point to so they can avoid scrutiny. He’s sought out the spotlight, and he may combust under the heat.
The rest of the NFL seems to have figured out that they’re playing a losing game with Donald Trump, and the league has told Jones to stop discussing the national anthem. For now, they’re saving him from himself, but they’re not going down with him if things come to that.
Heroic greatness requires doing the right thing when it is most difficult. Power-hungry people lack the perspective. Arrogant people lack the humility. Jerry Jones possesses these character flaws in spades, as did his forerunner, Avery Brundage. History repeats itself when its lessons aren’t learned. I’d suggest someone send Jerry Jones a link to Avery Brundage’s Wikipedia page, but his egotism would bristle at the comparison. For whatever reason, he can’t see what’s happening or the damage it will do to his legacy. He can’t factor in any variables besides the money and the power. Perhaps that’s why he gets along so well with Donald Trump: neither of them can tell the difference between greatness and grandiosity.