Cowboys make rare progressive move with visit to African-American Museum of History and Culture

WASHINGTON — Like most of the teams that have toured the newest hot-ticket showplace at the Smithsonian, the Dallas Cowboys had a special interest in a particular exhibit on the sports wing at the African-American Museum of History and Culture: The statue celebrating the iconic moment from 50 years ago during the Olympics at Mexico City when USA track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos took off their shoes and raised fists on the medal stand, protesting in the name of human rights.

Damion Thomas, the sports curator at the museum who guided the two-hour tour on Monday, said the statue was a “major focal point” for the Cowboys, just as it was for, well, the ultra-woke Golden State Warriors.

As Thomas put it to USA TODAY Sports, it was “athletes thinking about other athletes using their platforms to draw attention to larger social and political issues.”

How ironic. The Cowboys, from the top with team owner Jerry Jones, have taken the hardest line of any team in the NFL, at least publicly, against protests and gestures during the national anthem. Several weeks ago, when the NFL national anthem policy that he pushed for – in the name of business, he maintains — was tabled amid talks with the NFL Players Association, Jones opened training camp by defying league efforts and declaring that his players “toe the line” during the anthem. If not, the word was reiterated, they would no longer be Cowboys.

Yet there they were at the museum, soaking up some historical context.

And Thomas maintained that his favorite moment during the tour came as he told the group about the significance of the invention of the cotton gin, and Jones shared details about his family’s history as sharecroppers in Arkansas.

“Jerry had his own stories about picking cotton … that connects with this history,” Thomas said.

How that flows with his contemporary status in the NFL, though, begs for a debate with NFL players on the opposite side of issues that might include labor negotiations and protesting during the anthem.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys (3-4) stayed over suffering a tough loss against Washington at FedEx Field on Sunday, with the museum visit preceded by a postgame dinner at the National Museum of Natural History and followed by a jaunt to the Lincoln Memorial returning to Dallas for a bye week. It was another of the educational excursions that Jones and coach Jason Garrett have worked into the team’s schedule over the years, which have included a visit to Ground Zero.

Last week, Jones told USA TODAY Sports, “We’re going there to play a game, but Washington is still the nation’s capital. It gives us an opportunity.”

The African-American museum is becoming quite the destination for sports entities. Although the Cowboys are just the second NFL team to visit, following an offseason tour by the Baltimore Ravens, the list of those who have been through the immaculate facility includes a dozen NBA and two WNBA teams, the Harlem Globetrotters and one major league baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks. And Thomas said the largest group of NFL players came while in town to lobby Congress for diabetes research.

This is fitting, considering the tremendous support from the sports world. The largest single donor to the museum? Michael Jordan, who dropped $5 million in the bucket. LeBron James contributed $2.5 million and Nike gave $2 million. The $1 million club includes Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, the NFL, NBA and NBA Players Association.

Still, I’m wondering what effect the museum visit – which includes sobering details and exhibits pertaining to slavery and Jim Crow in America – will have on the individual players in addition to Jones, the most powerful team owner in all of pro sports.

After all, Colin Kaepernick – who launched the protests in the NFL and is pursuing a collusion grievance against the league – still doesn’t have a job while several teams crash with suspect quarterbacks.

How can anyone view a Mexico City ’68 statue and not think of Kaepernick’s stance on the NFL stage?

Although the protests have largely subsided, the Kaepernick issue hasn’t. It should concern the NFL that, per multiple reports, Rhianna turned down the chance to perform during halftime at the Super Bowl because of Kaepernick’s saga. 

A few weeks ago, while at my alma mater, I had the honor of meeting Ernest Green, who attended Michigan State after becoming one of the “Little Rock Nine” teenagers who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The first thing Green mentioned: “Is Kaepernick ever going to get back into the NFL?”

With that, the Cowboys have a front-row seat to the history currently being written in the NFL with Kaepernick and the spotlight on social issues. Kaepernick’s jersey and other artifacts in the museum’s collection are not on display at this point, but at some point they will be – maybe near the statue featuring Smith, Carlos and Australian medalist Peter Norman.

Thomas knows that exhibits can illustrate how far we’ve come as a society.

“That’s one of the most important messages,” he said. “People have to believe that social change is possible.”

And some exhibits, inspired by some of the same issues that were motivating factors for protests 50 years ago, also illustrate how far we have to go.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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