GLENDALE, Ariz. – On a night when the eyes of the world would be on them – not for their play during a football game, but their conduct before it – the Dallas Cowboys had two goals in mind.
Speaking after his team's 28-17 win against the Arizona Cardinals, and after taking center stage with a pregame demonstration, Jason Garrett outlined those goals succinctly.
"The objectives, as much as anything else, were to somehow, some way demonstrate unity and demonstrate equality – and do so without any way involving the American flag and the national anthem," Garrett said.
In the moments before the traditional playing of the national anthem before kickoff, the full scope of the Cowboys organization took the field at University of Phoenix Stadium. Garrett was there, along with his full roster and his coaching staff. But the Cowboys were joined by ownership and front office officials, including team owner/general manager Jerry Jones and the full Jones Family.
Linking up, arm-and-arm, along the yardage numbers, the Cowboys briefly dropped to a knee together. The move was a call to unity and racial equality, which has been the motive for similar demonstrations across the NFL for the past year – including widespread showings on Sunday.
Unlike other demonstrations, however, the Cowboys rose and returned to their sideline before the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner." From there, they observed the national anthem standing up, again with arms linked.
"I've never been prouder of an association with players, with a coaching staff, as I am with this crew," said Jones following the game.
The Cowboys found themselves in a unique position this weekend, as some incendiary comments from President Donald Trump provoked league-wide outcry from NFL players and coaches. But with their game against the Cardinals scheduled for ESPN's Monday Night Football, the Cowboys found themselves with added time to assess their situation.
The result, Garrett said, was days of dialogue among players, coaches and ownership about how to make a statement – and how to do so respectfully.
"They were so thoughtful, they were open with each other, they were communicative," Garrett said. "I'm sure they worked through some disagreements, some differences of opinion and different positions. And ultimately those things – unity and the importance of expressing our support for equality in our country – those are the things that rose to the forefront."
That's not surprising, given that NFL protests over the national anthem initially arose over concerns with police brutality and the equality of minorities in America. But Jones pointed out himself that the meaning of the message was being lost amid the debate over whether the gesture was disrespectful.
Jones said that was something his players understood.
"They were very much aware that that statement, when made or when attempted to be made in and a part of the recognition of our flag can not only lead to criticism, but also controversy," he said. "It was real easy for everybody in our organization to see that the message of unity, the message of equality was getting – if you will – pushed aside or diminished by the controversy."
To that end, the Cowboys found a work-around. The goal was not to lose the meaning of the gesture amid the outcry. On top of that, both Garrett and Jones placed an emphasis on their desire to respect the American flag, the national anthem and the ideals they represent.
"The flag represents the fight and the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of men and women over the last 240 or so years who have been fighting for these ideals all over the world," Garrett said. "I think our players understood that, and it felt like it was just important to somehow, some way demonstrate – but do it in a way that didn't involve the flag or the anthem."
For his part, Jones has long expressed a desire that his players respect both the flag and the national anthem, dating back to last summer when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first received notoriety for kneeling during the song.
He reiterated that again on Monday night. But after a divisive weekend – both among the NFL community and the nation as a whole – Jones was proud his team managed to accomplish both of its goals.
"I hope that I'm clear, I hope that our team is clear: we want to stand and respect the flag. Let's make no mistake about that. Nothing we've done, nothing we did tonight says anything other than that," Jones said. "But we also, as a complete team – as players and as an organization – want to be able to, when we can, demonstrate that unity is important and equality is important. The thing that I'm so proud of these guys for is they did both."