For the first time since Colin Kaepernick sparked a wave of social justice awareness among NFL players in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys have had a member of the franchise kneel in peaceful protest during the national anthem.
Defensive tackle Dontari Poe took a knee during the anthem before Sunday night’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, following through on an intention he made public in July, when he said he hoped to peacefully protest in support of racial equality in America. More than a dozen Rams players also took a knee during the anthem Sunday night.
The Cowboys also stood together as a team in the end zone for a pregame rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (often referred to as the Black national anthem). The Rams were represented by two players during that song: linebacker Micah Kiser and offensive lineman David Edwards.
While teams across the league participated with a mixture of different gestures during Week 1, Poe taking a knee will ultimately be one of the more memorable moments of peaceful protest, largely because he becomes the first player to do so nearly three years after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones infamously suggested that any player refusing to stand for the anthem would not be allowed to play in Dallas.
Poe said in July and then reiterated in August that he hoped to take a knee in Week 1, though he added that he would do so only after speaking to Jones about his intention.
“I do still plan on kneeling, but we haven’t had the conversation yet,” Poe said in August of needing to meet with Jones. “But we had a team meeting where [Jones] kind of expressed a couple of feelings, and he always told us he had an open door for us to talk to him at anytime. So I look forward to taking advantage of that and just getting in his ear and seeing how he’s feeling about it.”
The freedom to protest has long been a spotlight on the Cowboys, largely because of Jones’ position in previous years that he demanded players stand for the national anthem. So much so, in the midst of an October 2017 flashpoint around player protests, Jones went as far as suggesting Dallas wouldn’t play anyone he believed was “disrespecting” the flag by kneeling during the national anthem.
“We cannot in any way give the implication that we tolerate disrespecting the flag,” Jones said after an October 2017 loss to the Green Bay Packers. “We know that there is a serious debate in this country about those issues, but there is no question in my mind that the [league] and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag.”
That stance defined Jones’ reputation on player protests for the past three years, but perhaps never more prominently than the past several months, when it became clear the league’s front office and many teams had begun to change their attitudes toward kneeling. Whether it was the NFL apologizing for pushing back against protesting in past years, or other franchises announcing their support of player protest moving forward, Jones increasingly found himself on an island in his resistance. And with that isolation, a multitude of questions hovered over the Cowboys about what would transpire when the 2020 season kicked off.
Could Jones change his mind? Would some Dallas players protest regardless? Would there be criticism from Jones’ political ally, President Donald Trump?
Over time, one inescapable reality presented itself to the franchise: This wasn’t going away — and Jones was going to have to open a dialogue with some of his players to navigate what was coming. That is precisely what happened, spurred at least partially by running back Ezekiel Elliott taking part in a video asking the NFL to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement, and Poe stating repeatedly that he planned to kneel.
Jones was largely cagey throughout the preseason, repeatedly speaking about the subject of “grace” and “understanding” in tones that seemed vague and confusing. At one point in late August, Jones said during a team radio appearance that he would seek a compromise on protesting during the anthem, in hopes of replicating what the team did in September 2017, when Jones and the Cowboys kneeled in unison before the anthem but then all stood together during the rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But a team source told Yahoo Sports this week that Jones hadn’t reached any definitive conclusions when he suggested the compromise in August, preferring to keep his options open until after speaking to players. Then came what appeared to be something of a softer stance from Jones this past week, when he spoke to media and again suggested any actions be handled with “grace” — but this time added in that he hoped fans would also be part of that “grace” and understand why players might kneel.
As Jones was softening his expectations, multiple players began to suggest something new was afoot in Dallas, with quarterback Dak Prescott and head coach Mike McCarthy saying they were in favor of players having the freedom to chose their own actions on gameday. Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford later told reporters that the roster had been given a “green light” to take part in a peaceful protest, followed by Elliott, who told the Pro Football Talk podcast that he expected some kneeling during the anthem in the season opener.
“I think we’re going to have guys kneeling, we’re going to have guys standing, and the biggest thing is that we’re all supporting each other,” Elliott said. “We’re all supporting each other and that’s what’s going to bring us all together. … I think everyone in the locker room feels that we’re going to get support from ownership, [from the] coaching staff and from each other. I think everyone is going to feel free to express themselves however they choose to.”
It’s worth noting that Sunday’s events took place in Inglewood, California, leaving everyone to wonder what the reaction of Cowboys fans will be next week, when the team hosts the Atlanta Falcons at AT&T Stadium. Jones has repeatedly talked about the “sensitivity” of Cowboys fans when it comes to the national anthem, suggesting that he remains uneasy when it comes to the prospect of upsetting the franchise’s fan base. And Jones might have some precedent to suggest his worry is legitimate, considering the city’s Major League Soccer team took part in kneeling during a home match in August, resulting in a round of booing that became a national story.
Whatever happens in the Cowboys’ home opener, there appears to be no intent of turning back from players who have expanded their voices into social justice spaces this offseason. Not only was Elliott part of the now-famous video requesting an apology from the NFL for previous reticence around social justice, Prescott has spoken out several times about the need for reform in community policing, while also pledging more than $1 million toward those efforts. A subject that Prescott expounded on again last week, when he told Yahoo Sports that he wanted to focus on underlying corruption in policing and how it impacts some communities.
“I think [speaking out] is growth,” Prescott said of adding his voice to the country’s social justice dialogue. “Growth and not necessarily the change in my mindset, but just knowing and understanding that I’m blessed with an amazing platform — the platform to be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. But with that comes an obligation at times. There comes an obligation to speak what’s on my mind, whether people like it or whether people don’t, sometimes that’s just the facts of being a leader. You have to say what you believe and you have to walk how you believe and act how you believe. I think that’s just been important during these times in this country, of all the hardships of the pandemic and the social injustice, just to be the leader I am and not to silence my voice.”
More from Yahoo Sports: