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NEW: Cowboys wanted to avoid making "statement about equality" during anthem, owner says

"Monday Night Football" kicks off following weekend of protests after Trump's criticism

CNN  — 

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined his team in taking a knee before the National Anthem, then the Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals players stood with arms locked for the anthem ahead of the “Monday Night Football” kickoff.

Still, the fans in Glendale, Arizona, booed as “America’s Team” knelt.

Cowboys star wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back Ezekiel Elliott said the team was sending a message to President Donald Trump, who in recent days has issued caustic criticism of the anthem protests that began as a means to decry racial and social injustice. They evolved over the weekend, with players responding to Trump’s remarks by kneeling, locking arms or remaining in their locker rooms during pregame performances of the anthem.

“That was a clear shot at Trump,” Bryant said of his team’s display. “We showed great unity tonight, and that’s what that was for. I feel like that was needed.”

Added Elliott, “We don’t agree at all with what the President said, and we just wanted to show that we weren’t going to be divided by that.”

Owner Jerry Jones, center, takes a knee Monday with his team prior to the National Anthem.

Jones, who in the past has criticized such conduct, said he was proud of his team for showing respect for the American flag while also showing unity.

“We want to stand and respect the flag,” he said. “Nothing we did tonight says anything other than that, but we also, as a complete team … want to be able to, when we can, demonstrate that unity is important and equality is important. So, the thing that I’m so proud of these guys for, they did both.”

Trump kicked off the morning after the Cowboys’ 28-17 victory with double-barreled tweets, noting both the anger that fans in Glendale exhibited but also appearing to praise the Cowboys for standing during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

After claiming NFL ratings were down except during the pregame anthems, Trump tweeted, “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.”

That tweet was followed by, “But while Dallas dropped to its knees as a team, they all stood up for our National Anthem. Big progress being made-we all love our country!”

Later Tuesday morning, he posted a tweet reiterating his call for the NFL to institute a rule banning players from kneeling during the anthem.

Capping a contentious weekend

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 17: Wide receiver Doug Baldwin #89 of the Seattle Seahawks gains two yards against cornerback Dontae Johnson #36 of the San Francisco 49ers in the first quarter of the game at CenturyLink Field on September 17, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Seahawks' Doug Baldwin defends anthem protest
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As she performed the anthem, pop singer Jordin Sparks also shook up the Twitterverse with a scripture reference written on her hand: Proverbs 31: 8-9, which reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

Many took to social media to praise Sparks.

Members of the Cowboys and Cardinals teams stood in separate locations for the anthem. The teams had talked about coming together for a joint display of unity, but that didn’t happen, a league source said. No member of either team was shown in the televised broadcast kneeling or sitting as the anthem played.

As players, coaches and owners locked arms to honor the flag and members of the armed forces, public address announcer Jim Barnett invited the crowd to “unite as well and do the same with your fellow fans, regardless of jersey color.”

Before the game, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians had said it would be up to players to decide whether to stand or kneel during the anthem.

“That is an individual right of an American,” he said.

Jones joins demonstration

Last year, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick saw only a modicum of support for the anthem protests he pioneered, Jones told a Fort Worth radio station that such demonstrations were “really disappointing.”

The Cowboys’ owner reiterated those sentiments last week, telling Fox Business that the pregame National Anthem wasn’t the time for players to express themselves.

“That’s not the place to do anything other than honor the flag and everybody that’s given up a little for it,” he said.

Jones said after the Cardinals game that he realized his players wanted to “make a statement about equality,” but the players knew that making the statement during the recognition of the American flag could spur criticism.

Photos: Not just a knee

He was quick to excuse those who booed, noting they jeered only when the Cowboys knelt, before the team stood up for the anthem.

“I knew they hadn’t seen the complete thing we were doing,” he said.

Asked about comments from Trump, whom he has supported in the past, Jones declined to respond.

“I want our actions to be louder than words,” he said. “We made our statement regarding the two issues we’re talking about.”

Following the game, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett issued high praise for his players and how they handled a “challenging issue.”

A controversial Sunday

“Our players get put in a situation where they feel pressure from a lot of different places,” the coach said. “They were so thoughtful. They were open with each other. They were communicative. I’m sure they worked through some disagreements and differences of opinion and different positions, and ultimately, those things – unity and the importance of expressing our support for equality and our country – those are the things that rose to the forefront.”

Trump: Players should not ‘disrespect’ flag

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NFL fans split over anthem controversy
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The latest chapter in the controversy opened Friday, when Trump told those attending a rally in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who protests during the anthem.

The President’s focus remained on sports Saturday morning, as he tweeted he was rescinding a White House invitation for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors because two-time league MVP Steph Curry was “hesitating” in accepting the presidential offer. (Curry actually had flat-out declined the invitation.)

Hours later, the President went back in on athletes following in the knee prints of Kaepernick, who has said he refuses to stand during the anthem because he cannot “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Read Trump’s two-part tweet: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Trump went on to make the protests his cause du jour – or more accurately, de deux jours – as 15 of his next 23 tweets over the weekend addressed the demonstrations.

His stance gained traction among his base and some NFL fans, who took to social media to tell athletes to stick to sports and skip the politics. Others used hashtags such #standforouranthem and #standfortheflag, tweeting that they were going to follow Trump’s advice to tune out.

‘That offends everybody’

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Ex-NFL coach who backed Trump: 'I'm pissed'
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Within the NFL there was a starkly different response. Trump’s criticism seemed to galvanize the league’s players and coaches.

In some cases, team owners locked arms with their players. Trump supporter Shad Khan, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, was one of them. Trump friend Robert Kraft stood in the owners box, hand over heart, before his New England Patriots played, but he said he was “deeply disappointed” in Trump’s remarks.

Terrell Suggs, No. 55, and Baltimore Ravens legend Ray Lewis, wearing a sport coat, kneel before Sunday's game.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans stayed in their locker rooms for the anthem. Most teams chose to lock arms in a show of unity, but even among those squads, some players opted to kneel, including stars like the Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs and Denver Broncos’ Von Miller.

Athletes clap back at Trump

Sports commentator Bob Costas told CNN on Monday the response among players and coaches was “universal” and compared the President’s remarks on the anthem protests to his words after white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Well, when you call people sons of bitches across the board, that offends everybody. White and black, they’ve stood shoulder to shoulder on those fields, in those locker rooms. What kind of a statement is that to make?” Costas said.

“And I don’t think it’s irrelevant that clearly the President had more passion and conviction for those remarks than he did – when he finally got around after equivocating – to distancing himself to some extent from white nationalists and neo-Nazis. He clearly had more fervor for this than for that.”

CNN’s Ryan Young, Brian Stelter and Coy Wire contributed to this report.