Benching players for national-anthem protests? Or will Jerry Jones go so far as to forfeit games? “If we are disrespecting the flag,” the Dallas Cowboys owner said after yesterday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, “then we won’t play, period.” Dallas’ CBS affiliate reminds everyone that Jones himself took part in the same protests to which he’s now demanding an end:

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Sunday that any of his players who disrespect the flag during the national anthem won’t play in games.

Jones is the first NFL owner to publicly make a stand about disciplining players who kneel during the anthem. Jones didn’t specify what kind of other demonstration he would consider disrespectful.

Cowboys defensive linemen Damontre’ Moore and David Irving stood alongside teammates during the national anthem before Sunday’s home game against Green Bay at AT&T Stadium. At the conclusion of the anthem, the two players raised their fists.

“I don’t know about that. But if there is anything that is disrespectful to the flag then we will not play,” Jones said after the Cowboys’ 35-31 loss. “You understand? If we are disrespecting the flag then we won’t play. Period. We’re going to respect the flag, and I’m going to create the perception of it. And we have.”

It’s fair to point out, as the newscaster does above, that the demonstration Jones joined took place before the anthem rather than during it. We’ll get back to whether that’s a distinction with or without a difference in a moment. Jones also defended Mike Pence’s decision to stage a protest of his own:

The owner made reference to Vice President Pence saying he left the 49ers-Colts game earlier Sunday in Indianapolis because of protests by players during the anthem.

“I’m saying our vice president of the United States, if in his opinion there’s disrespect of the flag, then he should … express himself however he wants to,” Jones said. “He’s got rights, too. So however he wants to do it — he felt that not standing for the flag is disrespectful. I do, too.”

The NFL Players Association has already criticized Pence for his demonstration, and extended that criticism to Jones:

The NFLPA released a statement later in the evening in response to Jones’ comments, defending the protests and NFL players’ constitutional rights to kneel.

“We should not stifle these discussions and cannot allow our rights to become subservient to the very opinions our Constitution protects,” the statement said. “That is what makes us the land of the free and home of the brave.”

The NFLPA wants to make this about the First Amendment, but it has nothing to do with the Constitution. Employers have the right to set speech limitations in the workplace, and the NFL in particular enforces a wide range of speech limitations, including fines for violating uniform regulations and on-field penalties for taunting and other speech. The league can’t penalize players for peacefully demonstrating away from the workplace, although if Brendan Eich is any example, they can decide not to work with players on the basis of political disagreement. In fact, the NFL has specific rules about respecting the national anthem, which at present they are not enforcing.

If Jones wants to bench players for their protests, he can do so. If he decides to start forfeiting games, the league may well get involved, but it’s his team and his field …. sort of. That brings us to one key reason why fans are revolting over the protests, as I explained in my column for The Week yesterday. They are stealing a moment of unity from the taxpaying saps that gave the NFL essentially free stadiums, and now doing so on an explicitly partisan basis:

Owners seem to have assumed that fan anger was entirely focused on kneeling during the national anthem itself. In response, they pushed players to come up with different forms of demonstration — locking arms, kneeling just before the anthem, not showing up at all. None of it has calmed the fans’ wrath, because none of it addresses the main points that have most angered them about the demonstrations.

First, the protests have become explicitly partisan. That isn’t all the fault of the league and its players; President Trump criticized them sharply two weeks ago, telling a rally that the owners should fire anyone taking a knee. However, Trump was only responding to fan anger that had already built. Rather than simply responding in the press to Trump by telling him off, every team coordinated a massive demonstration during the national anthem that weekend, transforming a social protest that had involved fewer than a dozen players the previous week into an inescapably partisan demonstration.

NFL fans expect Sunday football to be an escape from the politicization of all things. There are many reasons for this — but a not insignificant one is that taxpayers provide publicly funded stadiums to billionaire owners and millionaire players for almost every team in the league. We are all footing the bill for NFL players’ workplaces. Why should they become venues for partisan protest?

Furthermore, just as much as they value sportsmanship between competitors, fans value that moment of unity when we can put aside all of our agendas and come together simply as Americans. Any demonstration — kneeling, sitting, arm-linking — distracts from that unity. It steals that moment from fans, who wonder with some justification why athletes can’t use their celebrity power to pick some other time for their protest rather than shove it down our throats after all the support fans already give these players and teams.

The NFL doesn’t appear to have figured this out. It’s not just about the flag, but about the theft of trust with the fans, all for a series of silly and impotent protests. The multimillionaires on the field and their billionaire owners have plenty of platforms for social protest and activism. Fans want them to stop hijacking the one that taxpayers got shafted to provide.