FRISCO, Texas – Only in the 24-hour news cycle and only on the world's most visible football team could this have happened.
Dez Bryant found himself at the epicenter of a contentious national debate on Thursday morning, all as the result of a Twitter joke. On Wednesday, the All-Pro receiver traded barbs with a pizzeria employee, who thanked him for a generous tip while also making her NFL loyalties known.
It looked like a harmless and commonplace interaction for Twitter, where Bryant and countless other celebrities like him engage with fans on a daily basis. The conversation took a more serious turn later on, when ESPN personality Jemele Hill compared Bryant's tweet to the ongoing conversation about NFL players protesting during the national anthem.
Hill's tweet stemmed from Bryant's comments last week in Oxnard, Calif., when he was asked about protests happening across the league during the national anthem:
Bryant responded on Twitter before the Cowboys practiced on Thursday morning, and he spoke with reporters afterward. How the entire debate started over a joke about pizza, he said, he had no idea.
"It was extremely disappointing, because I didn't think it was that serious. It wasn't," Bryant said. "You've got to live, you've got to have fun. You can't be too uptight all the time. I swear to God it was nothing personal when I tweeted that out to that girl."
Having started the conversation, though, Bryant said he wanted to clarify that he wasn't trying to criticize anyone's stance or behavior regarding the national anthem. Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked the debate last season by kneeling during the anthem, and other players – from Oakland's Marshawn Lynch to members of the Cleveland Browns – have done so this preseason.
"I'm not criticizing nobody," Bryant said. "They're free to do whatever they want. Hell no I'm not doing none of that. Their beliefs are their beliefs, and I'm not saying that it's wrong – because they're feeling a certain way."
For his part, Bryant said he prefers to lead by example – and he wants that example to be one of positivity.
"I like being positive," he said. "I'm not saying what they're doing is wrong, I just have my ways of going about things."
Bryant hasn't been shy about referencing his own background and his upbringing in Lufkin, Texas, and he mentioned that again on Thursday in stating his desire for positivity.
"We want positive surroundings," he said. "Like I said, I'm the first to say – my childhood was bad, it was poor, but I don't wear it on my shoulders. I don't. I try my best to become a better person from it and try to do the exact opposite. That's what I try to show people, that's what I try to show these young kids."