ESPN commentator and former Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon went after Jerry Jones on Pardon the Interruption, comparing the Dallas Cowboys owner to a slaveholder for comments he made about players protesting during the national anthem.
“The word that comes to my mind, and I don’t care who doesn’t like me using it, is ‘plantation,’ ” Wilbon said to co-host Tony Kornheiser on Monday. “The players are here to serve me; they will do what I want no matter how much I pay them. They are not equal to me. That’s what this says to me and to mine.”
Wilbon’s ire comes after Jones threatened to bench any player who took a knee or sat during the national anthem. The Cowboys have a bye this week, and will play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, October 22, where several players are expected to protest.
“If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” Jones told reporters after the Cowboys’ 35-31 Sunday loss to the Green Bay Packers. “We cannot in the NFL in any way give the implication that we tolerate disrespecting the flag.”
ESPN declined to comment on Wilbon’s comments.
Wilbon’s blunt criticism of Jones on racial lines is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is more forceful than the comments his colleague Jemele Hill made on Twitter about Jones that led to her two-week suspension. Hill, the co-host of ESPN’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter (known as SC6), was punished by the network after telling her Twitter followers they should consider boycotting Cowboys advertisers if they wanted to protest Jones’ decision to punish players who kneel during the anthem.
“If the rationale behind [Jerry Jones’] stance is keeping the fanbase happy, make him see that he [has] underestimated how all of his fanbase feels,” Hill said in one of a series of tweets.
Jones’ position appears to have changed from just a few weeks ago, when he was photographed kneeling beside his players ahead of the team’s Week 3 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Wilbon said the apparent shift in his beliefs made Jones look “as phony as a $3 bill.”
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, President Trump called Jones at least four times before that game, imploring him not not to allow “America’s team” to kneel during the anthem. After Jones’ abrupt shift, Trump praised him on Twitter.
Jones, who was one of several NFL owners to give $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, also defended Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to leave an Indianapolis Colts game early (Trump later said he told Pence to leave) after several 49ers players took a knee during the anthem.
Cowboys Hall of Famer Michael Irvin criticized Jones’ decision, noting that the protests aren’t about disrespecting the flag. Crackdowns on protesters also create a slippery slope for the league, he said.
“It takes us down a bad road for you to start trying to come in now with rules,” Irvin said on KRLD-FM 105.3 Dallas sports radio. “I don’t know how this league has gotten so far to where you’re not an American by doing the most American thing, which is being able to exercise your First Amendment rights.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a memo Tuesday, saying players should stand during the national anthem, suggesting that protesting the flag is not a productive way to make progress on the issues players are trying to highlight — namely, racial inequality and police brutality against African-Americans.
“Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell wrote, noting that the league “wanted to move past this controversy … together with our players.”
It’s unclear if players such as Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins will buy into Goodell’s attempt to move past the controversy. Jenkins, who has held a clenched fist in the air during the anthem since last season, told my colleague Les Bowen that he expects the league to allow input from both players and the NFL Players Association on any decision to ban protests during the anthem.
“Hopefully, we can continue to do this in a respectful manner, in a way that continues to support the players that are [trying to make a positive change],” Jenkins said. He also responded to Jones’ decision to punish Cowboys players who protest, noting, “He doesn’t own the team I play for.”
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King said some NFL players are skeptical of the league’s efforts, pointing to comments like Jones’ as repeating the NFL’s history of “dehumanizing players and forcing them to do what owners want.”
“My gut feeling is the league will start by offering to devote a week or weeks — the way the NFL does with cancer causes (“Crucial Catch”) or the military (“Salute to Service”) — to fund and partner with players to highlight and sponsor work on civil rights causes in NFL communities,” King wrote.
Hill’s SC6 co-host Michael Smith returned to the show Tuesday night, and will handle hosting duties on his own until Hill’s suspension is over. He briefly commented on his missing co-host as the show began, but quickly moved on to other topics.
“Those who know, know. Those who don’t, it need not be explained. You’re here, I’m here. Let’s talk some sports,” Smith said.