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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Balancing protest and patriotism

President Donald Trump repeatedly tweeted about NFL players

President Donald Trump repeatedly tweeted about NFL players who kneel during the anthem. Credit: Getty Images / Pool

Monday night, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his team stood arm in arm, then took a knee to “make a statement about unity and equality,” in the words of coach Jason Garrett. Then they went to the sidelines, again locked arms, and stood respectfully while the national anthem was sung and a flag covered the football field.

It was perfect. That’s a tough thing for a born-and-raised New York Giants fan like me to admit, and a seemingly impossible one for President Donald Trump to understand, but it’s true.

With their actions, the players and coaches and Jones showed they could express two ideas at the same time: that racial inequality is a serious problem that demands attention, and that those who have served the nation and suffered for that service deserve the respect that’s often conveyed via salutes to the flag and anthem.

Both are true. Believing one does not reject the other.

The playing of the anthem for the “Monday Night Football” game in Phoenix had become the focus of the kneeling controversy because it was the last of 16 games during the third week of the NFL season.

Starting Friday, Trump unleashed close to 20 tweets saying players who kneel during the anthem should be fired and calling players who did so sons of bitches. Before Trump’s call for punishment, few actually were kneeling. But the act, and talking about it, have been cultural tinderboxes since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has said his Christianity inspires all of his behavior and most of his tattoos, began kneeling at the playing of the anthem during the 2016 season to protest systemic racism and police violence.

The Cowboys made their plan after three days of talks among Jones and coaches and players, and this process is highly noteworthy. Jones has been outspoken in his belief that players should stand during the anthem. But according to news reports, he listened closely to the concerns of players about Trump’s words, and about racial injustice and police violence. And they listened to his words on the importance of respecting the nation’s symbols. And they found common ground.

By Monday night, Jones, normally the most outspoken owner in the game and one who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, was the only one of 32 NFL owners who had not released a statement. But his actions on the field showed that he, like the other 31, stood with his players, and against the purposely combustible attacks of Trump.

The idea that Trump honors military service and these athletes degrade it is laughable. Trump is the man who attacked Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war for seven years who refused early release by his captors, saying of McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump also attacked a fallen soldier’s Muslim parents because they disagreed with his politics.

Anyone who thinks they can stand with both Trump and the military is mistaken.

And Trump couldn’t see the beauty in what the Cowboys and Jones did. His response on Twitter was a continued attack on the validity of his opponents’ point of view: “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger.”

The arguments that patriotism needs a voice, and that racial justice needs a voice, are not equal. This nation is awash in patriotism and sadly short of people fighting for racial justice. But you can’t win over opponents by disrespecting the honorable things they value.

Jones and the Cowboys exemplified this truth Monday night. Trump spits on it.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.