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State of the Black NFL Fan

How ’bout them Cowboys? Black fans and the struggle with America’s Team

Dallas remains at the center of the national debate over the divisive issue of NFL players protesting during the anthem

ARLINGTON, Texas — April Allen is rarely confused, but she didn’t know what to do about her beloved Dallas Cowboys.

After Cowboys owner Jerry Jones announced in July that the team’s players would be required to stand on the field while the national anthem is performed, a position that flouted league policy at the time, Jones doubled down on his position at the outset of training camp, essentially declaring that the Cowboys would operate by their own rules. A day later, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, who is biracial, seemingly criticized players who chose to demonstrate during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Those were two difficult days for Allen, as well as for many other die-hard African-American Cowboys fans. Suddenly, black folks who had been unwavering in their support of the team for decades were asking tough questions that put an entirely different spin on the popular saying by onetime head coach Jimmy Johnson: “How ’bout them Cowboys?”

“It was tough because … as a minority season-ticket holder, I was afraid to post things on Facebook about the Cowboys at one point,” Allen said while tailgating with friends outside of AT&T Stadium in early December.

“Just the retaliation of people on my page, [writing], ‘You’re supporting someone who’s a racist.’ My uncle stopped wearing his Cowboys jersey. I had a friend who stopped supporting the team because of Jerry’s comments. There were minority season-ticket holders who gave up their tickets. Just with everything that was happening, everything that was being said, it definitely caused a lot of people to think in a different way [about the Cowboys].”

We all know about the Dallas Cowboys, who will play host to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wild-card round on Saturday. The Cowboys are as much a part of our national consciousness as apple pie. The Cowboys are America’s Team. And America’s Team is at the center of the national debate over the divisive issue of NFL players protesting during the anthem.

In the more than two years since then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a movement by first sitting and then kneeling before games, the Cowboys have played a key role in framing the discussion about the appropriateness of the players’ form of protest. Both behind closed doors and in public, Jones has made his feelings clear, squarely putting the Cowboys in opposition to the displays intended to shine a light on police brutality and systemic oppression. Implementation of the recently revised and highly flawed anthem policy has been on hold all season — during this period, commissioner Roger Goodell told owners to zip it and players have not been disciplined for demonstrating — while the league and the NFL Players Association collaborate in an attempt to actually devise something better. At some point, however, a coherent plan must be put into effect. The Cowboys, and their uncompromising owner in particular, will likely continue to have an outsize voice in the matter until it’s ultimately resolved, potentially alienating more of the team’s black fans in the process.

The Cowboys almost lost Andrew Brown.

Brown grew up idolizing Cowboys Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, who was one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. Brown’s earliest memories include rooting for the Blue Star. For Brown, becoming a season-ticket holder was a bucket-list goal achieved. That’s what made it so hard to hear what Jones and Prescott said.

“For me, watching Colin Kaepernick persecuted for being what I would think personifies a patriot, an American, a good role model … it made it hard for me to feel good about giving my money to the NFL,” said Brown, who uses his Cowboys season tickets to bring together police officers and inner-city youths at games. “The NFL owners’ response to it, I thought that was the polar opposite of what leaders do … especially Jerry. It made it difficult for me to feel great about the Jones family when you’re denying people the inalienable right to protest. How can you not respect and admire a man taking a stance on something that he believes in? Why would you want to minimize that?”

Of course, not all black Cowboys fans think alike. Of the more than 20 African-American Cowboys fans and season-ticket holders interviewed by The Undefeated, most expressed dismay regarding Jones’ strong opposition to the movement. Carolyn Price was an outlier.

Widely recognized as the team’s most fervent supporter, “Mama Cowboy,” as Price is affectionately known, has a Cowboys memorabilia collection that would put most blue-and-silver-loving fans to shame. A whole room in Price’s suburban Dallas home is dedicated to Cowboys history as well as her history with the Cowboys, which stretches from Bob Lilly, known as “Mr. Cowboy,” in the early 1960s to this iteration of the team. She’s with Jones and Prescott.

Dallas superfan Carolyn Price is known as “Mama Cowboy.”

Brandon Thibodeaux for ESPN

“There’s a time and a place for everything,” Price said while sitting at her dining room table. “If that’s what Kaepernick felt, that’s what he should do [protest].

“But I’ll tell you what, I would like to see somebody out there trying to protest in a playoff game and I’m sitting there wanting Dallas to win. I’d just like to say, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

To fully understand the events of July, one has to travel back to the 2017 season. That’s when Jones first drew a line for the Cowboys players to toe.

In early October, with players protesting across the league and owners flummoxed as to how to allay the concerns of their corporate partners and fans opposed to the demonstrations, Jones said Cowboys players would stand for the anthem or be benched.

“If there is anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones said at the time. “Understand? We will not … if we are disrespecting the flag, then we will not play. Period.”

Those were Jones’ strongest public comments to date on his disapproval of the wide-ranging protests, and they were problematic on multiple fronts. Under the rules then in place in the NFL’s game operations manual, players were not required to stand for the anthem. During the anthem, “players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand and refrain from talking,” according to the key passage on the issue in the manual. Moreover, under U.S. labor law, NFL owners cannot take retaliatory action against players for demonstrating during the anthem. The right to protest peacefully is protected by the Constitution.

The Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones, (center) took a knee before the national anthem on Sept. 25, 2017.

AP Photo/Matt York

In response to President Donald Trump’s attacks on players who have protested peacefully, the NFL in Week 3 of 2017 came together in a leaguewide display of unity before games. Jones — along with his sons, Stephen and Jerry Jr., and daughter, Charlotte Anderson — joined the team’s players, coaches and staff on the field before the anthem in taking a knee and locking arms. During the anthem, the Jones family stood arm-in-arm with the players. But no Cowboys players kneeled.

Besides his polarizing comments about Cowboys players being required to stand, Jones also angered many players, civil rights activists and black fans by telling ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that players “need consequences” to stand up to peer pressure. Some interpreted Jones’ words to mean that he believes NFL players are incapable of thinking for themselves. The NFL is almost 70 percent black. At the very least, Jones’ words could be interpreted as racially insensitive.

Jones has been on the wrong side of an issue that further exposed the nation’s deep racial divide, season-ticket holder Allen Preston said. Preston believes Jones’ hard-line rhetoric “did so much damage. He’s almost made the Cowboys the focus of the controversy. Think about it. Kaepernick [didn’t] even play for Dallas. He played in San Francisco.”

Although most fans interviewed for this piece disagreed with Jones’ stance and said he went way too far, all stopped short of accusing the longtime NFL owner of outright racism, saying he was focused foremost on what was best for the Cowboys’ business during a turbulent time inflamed by Trump, who has framed the players’ actions as being disrespectful to the flag, the military, the government and its institutions in general. Jones was among seven owners who donated at least $1 million to Trump’s inaugural festivities. A source told ESPN.com that Jones, in a meeting with Cowboys players and coaches last season, said his stance on the protests was rooted in a desire to play the bad guy and deflect attention away from the players. However, Jones also stressed that players need to understand the league’s business concerns resulting from fan backlash to the protests.

Even if Jones is primarily focused on the Cowboys’ bottom line while trying to curry favor with the president, Preston said, he has made the overall situation worse.

“Everybody says Jerry’s a businessman and he made those comments because it’s about business and money,” Preston said. “Well, sometimes the business should shut up, like, keep them guessing what you support, because if you can’t add any value to helping the movement, then you’re against it.

“Now he’s become the adversary. You want to know who’s the face of the adversary of the movement? Jerry Jones.”

Then there’s Prescott.

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was labeled a sellout for his view on the anthem protests.

Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

He was savaged on social media and in news media before this season, being labeled as a sellout and Uncle Tom after saying, “I 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 to a lot of people.”

Prescott said what he had to say, many fans suggested.

In his third season, Prescott was an unheralded fourth-round pick whom the Cowboys selected only after they failed to move up in the 2016 draft to get other college passers. The plan was for Prescott to sit and learn behind Pro Bowler Tony Romo. The plan changed, however, when Romo suffered an injury in the preseason. Prescott took control of the offense and the Cowboys took off. They became his team. Prescott is under contract for one more season. In the offseason, the Cowboys are expected to begin discussions with Prescott on a deal that could be worth $100 million. With potentially so much on the table for Prescott, it’s not surprising to some that his thinking aligned with that of the man who signs his paycheck.

“That [what Prescott said denouncing kneeling] was coming from a place of safety and comfort,” said Brown. “He’s saying, ‘I gotta take care of my family.’ ”

Preston gets that. However, there’s too much at stake for a professional athlete with such a massive platform to essentially speak out in opposition to the movement.

“Sometimes you just need to shut up,” Preston said. “You know what I’m saying? If you don’t, if you can’t add to the value of a good movement, then when they [journalists] ask you questions, just don’t [offer] an opinion about it. Because anything that doesn’t 100 percent support it [the movement] can diminish it.”

Andrew Brown shows his sign of protest during the national anthem at the Cowboys game against the Green Bay Packers on October 8, 2017.

Brandon Thibodeaux for ESPN

To be sure, Jones doesn’t have a monopoly on making incendiary comments on this subject. It’s just that with most things in the NFL, the Cowboys matter more than most teams.

For starters, they have those five Vince Lombardi Trophies. Just glance at any credible list of professional sports’ most valuable franchises and it won’t take long to find the Cowboys: They’re No. 1. Dallas plays its home games in a $1.15 billion, grown-folks amusement park masquerading as a sports venue. The Cowboys’ team headquarters can best be described as opulent. In many ways, the Cowboys’ moniker is fitting.

They got it in 1979. An NFL Films producer named Bob Ryan dubbed them America’s Team while creating the Cowboys’ end-of-the-year highlight film after the 1978 season. For many reasons, the name stuck, Pro Football Journal historian John Turney said.

Nothing evokes buttoned-down American stability like the late Tom Landry’s fedora. Roger Staubach went from issuing commands in Vietnam to engineering fourth-quarter comebacks.

“He was known as Captain America,” Turney said on the phone. “He had served in the military. He was squeaky clean. That was part of it. But the reason I think it caught on was because the Cowboys were really smart at marketing it. You would see it in their weekly releases or in their media guide, ‘America’s Team.’ It was something that Tex Schramm [the franchise’s original president and general manager] really embraced.”

After a downturn in the late 1980s, the Cowboys experienced a renaissance under Jones, who purchased the franchise in 1989, and his family, winning three Super Bowl titles from 1992 to 1995.

The Cowboys are intensely followed. They are culturally relevant. Like it or not, they occupy a unique place in popular culture. That’s why what Jones and Prescott said alarmed so many black folks, USC law professor Jody David Armour said. Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making, said the influence of the Cowboys plays a huge role in the debate about the meaning of America during these volatile times.

“The owner is taking a side in this very debate, and he’s saying what America means is you stand up and show respect and pay tribute [to the U.S. flag] even if you feel like you are a member of a group that is being unjustly treated by many people who represent America …. police who act under the color of law,” Armour said on the phone. “And what Dak Prescott did is not just standing by in silence in the face of injustice. He took on the interpretation of America that’s Jerry Jones’ interpretation of America. He really just kind of ratified that worldview, almost like a dummy and the owner is a ventriloquist speaking on his behalf.”

Jerry Jones takes a photograph with Carolyn Price and her family at a Cowboys game on Thanksgiving in 2017.

Brandon Thibodeaux for ESPN

The moratorium on implementing the revised anthem policy has been beneficial to the Cowboys, if for no other reason than that it has denied Jones another opening to further stoke controversy. Prescott, too, has stiff-armed the subject, keeping his focus on the field.

In a group interview after a game earlier this season, Jones declined to respond to a reporter’s question about the state of the protest movement and his reaction to it. Several Cowboys players declined to comment on the protest movement and the comments of Jones and Prescott.

For a variety of reasons (the league’s social justice deal with players prominent among them), pregame protests have petered out. Only three players, Miami Dolphins wide receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, kneeled throughout the season before games in which they were active. The number of players who kneel or otherwise actively demonstrate during the anthem could change quickly, though, because of innumerable flash points that can’t even be envisioned currently. At some point, the league and the NFLPA must agree on a functional policy that takes into account the potential for national strife, which could inspire players to demonstrate en masse again. Whenever the sides get serious about putting something on the books, Jones, as usual, will likely make his feelings known — and public. Undoubtedly, that could lead to more angst for the Cowboys’ black fans.

“It’s OK to say, ‘Guys, I want you to stand to represent the flag. That’s what we do as Cowboys.’ I have no problem with that,” said Allen, who no longer shies away from posting about her favorite team on social media. “But the actual comments he made … it went too far. And where it goes from here … I guess we’ll just have to wait to see.”

One way or another, count on the Cowboys continuing to drive the discussion. In these parts and way beyond, it’s just what they do.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.