ARLINGTON, Texas — The declaration by the powerful owner of the Dallas Cowboys that he would bench anyone who shows disrespect to the American flag drew a sharp response from the NFL players' union Monday and raised the possibility of another call to action by athletes who have kneeled during the national anthem.
Executive Director DeMaurice Smith of the NFL Players Association said the most provocative comments yet by Jerry Jones on the anthem controversy contradicted assurances last week from Commissioner Roger Goodell and New York Giants President John Mara that players could express themselves without retribution.
"I look forward to the day when everyone in management can unite and truly embrace and articulate what the flag stands for, liberty and justice for all, instead of some of them just talking about standing," Smith said. "We look forward to continuing our talks with them on this very issue."
Jones' comments on Sunday came after he was asked about Vice President Mike Pence's decision to leave an Indianapolis home game in protest of about a dozen San Francisco players who kneeled during the anthem. President Donald Trump tweeted after Pence's walkout that he had told his vice president to leave if any players kneeled during the anthem.
Following a 35-31 loss to Green Bay, the 74-year-old Jones said the NFL cannot leave the impression that it tolerates players disrespecting the flag and said any Cowboys doing so will not play.
"If there's anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play," said Jones, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. "OK? Understand? If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won't play. Period."
The Cowboys and Jones kneeled arm-in-arm before the anthem when they played at Arizona two weeks ago, a few days after President Trump said at a rally in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any players who disrespect the flag. All of them stood during the anthem, with arms still locked.
Most Dallas players have stood on the sideline, many with hands over their hearts, during the anthem since former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling last season in protest of police treatment of African-Americans.
Several NFL teams have struggled with how to handle anthem protests. After President Trump's criticism, the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to stay off the field before the anthem. But Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, an offensive lineman, stood at the edge of a tunnel with his teammates in darkness behind him during the anthem two weeks ago.
Villanueva said he was not making a political statement in defiance of his teammates, calling it a misunderstanding that was "very embarrassing on my end."
Miami coach Adam Gase recently set a new team policy requiring players either to stand or wait in the tunnel. Three chose to stay off the field, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills and Julius Thomas. All three have kneeled in the past.
"We were just trying to keep the team focused and not be a distraction," Michael Thomas said. "It was a team decision. ... The league heard us. They've heard the cry of the players."
Mara has told Giants players he wants them to stand during the anthem but supports their right to do otherwise. Jones had already made it clear that he felt strongly about standing for the anthem before his latest comments, and he isn't the only owner who feels that way.
Jones even suggested that standing for the anthem was more important to him that team unity.
"The main thing I want to do is make it real clear: There is no room here if it comes between looking non-supportive of our players and of each other or creating the impression that you're disrespecting the flag. We will be non-supportive of each other," Jones said. "We will not disrespect the flag."
President Trump's comments stoked a political controversy that had subsided somewhat since Kaepernick started it a year ago. The NFL defended the rights of players to protest.
Lead NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart has said, "Everyone should know, including the president, this is what real locker room talk is." It was an apparent reference to the "Access Hollywood" tapes in which President Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. President Trump had chalked up those comments as "locker room talk."