NFL

Opinion: Cowboys QB Dak Prescott’s evolution to a social justice warrior could change perceptions

You can’t say Dak Prescott is still languishing in a “sunken place” while mesmerized by Jerry Jones.

Not after the Dallas Cowboys quarterback stepped out in the name of social justice like never before by sending a passionate letter on Thursday to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and the state’s parole board, advocating for the release of death row inmate Julius Jones.

What a bold statement, quite the contrast to the message Prescott sent a couple of years ago when he vehemently supported Jones’ backward, “toes on the line” stance that not only denounced but threatened any Cowboys player who dared to take a knee during the national anthem.

“Current events are shining a much-needed light on deep-seated prejudices and systematic mistreatment of Black people, and it is my sincere hope that the cultural movements of today will lead to significant social changes that will create a better tomorrow,” Prescott, 27, wrote in the letter that was obtained exclusively by TIME. “To that end, you all are in the unique position of being able to make a direct impact by addressing a specific miscarriage of justice.”

Think about it: The high-profile quarterback for the most popular franchise in America’s most popular sports league using his name and platform to fight for the cause of a Black man convicted of a 1999 murder of a White man, with apparently shaky legal circumstances in play.

QB Dak Prescott is petitioning for the release of death row inmate Julius Jones. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)

Is Prescott suddenly “woke” amid the racial reckoning that is seemingly afoot in America? Maybe he was never completely in a “sunken place” — the term for the sad plight of the protagonist in Jordan Peele’s blockbuster film, “Get Out” — but that was surely the perception of some. In addition to a torrent of social media brushback as debate raged in 2018 over NFL player protests, Prescott was depicted with tears streaming from his eyes on a “Get Out” mural in Dallas. 

Prescott’s willingness to publicly engage in a significant social justice case might also reflect a personal evolution. It’s 2020, a year when all of us have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps forced to assess life through a different lens. For Prescott, the year has also included the tremendous personal tragedy of losing a brother in April. And on his career track, 2020 is the year that Prescott still hasn’t been able to secure the security of a long-term contract with the Cowboys.

No, Prescott isn’t in the poor house. Assuming the NFL manages to get in a full season, he’ll earn $31.4 million in 2020 while playing on the franchise tag. That’s astonishing, sure, for a player who entered the NFL as a fourth-round pick. Yet it is also strange that after he led the NFL’s top-ranked offense last season, there’s still no long-term contract.

Then there’s the George Floyd factor. I’m wondering how the killing of a Black man on the street in Minneapolis by a White, now former police officer, affected Prescott. The NFL players (including Chiefs phenom Patrick Mahomes and star Saints wideout Michael Thomas) who appeared on the video that prompted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to respond with his own video shortly after Floyd’s death, hadn’t previously done anything publicly on the social justice front. Yet, like so many of us, they were so moved. And they were inspired to use their names and platforms to make a statement.

If Prescott — a model citizen who so ably touted the Cowboys’ company line but was still unable to land a long-term deal like most star quarterbacks — has been influenced by the factors in his personal and professional life against the social backdrop of America that would make him, well, human.

Shortly after Floyd’s death, Prescott, stating that he was “disgusted and unsettled,” pledged to donate $1 million to improve police training and address systematic racism.

Now he’s taken another step in pushing for the release of Julius Jones. Maybe, too, he can inspire Jerry Jones to join the cause.

“As a Black man in this country right now, I experience injustices firsthand day in and day out, even as an athlete with ‘celebrity status,'" Prescott wrote in his letter to the authorities in Oklahoma.

New Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy praised Prescott during a Zoom conference with the media on Friday, describing the quarterback’s vibe as “upbeat” during their initial sessions of training camp after the pandemic wiped out in-person work during the offseason. The inference, intended or not by McCarthy, was that after the contract drama fell short of Prescott’s expectations, the coach hasn’t sensed bitterness. McCarthy said that Prescott has shown up as advertised. As a dedicated pro.

Yet there’s undoubtedly another layer, which historically so many high-profile Black athletes have had to assess as an obligation, unlike even the most sympathetic White counterparts, because they are intimately familiar with the dynamics. Check out this passage from Prescott’s letter:

“The treatment of Julius Jones is the kind of miscarriage of justice African-American men like myself live in fear of, and that is why I feel compelled to use the influence that God has blessed me with to speak up for what I believe is right and to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.”

That sounds a lot like Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who was blackballed from the NFL after launching the protest movement in the league in 2016.

It’s unclear whether Prescott will opt to protest during the anthem this season. The Cowboys have never had a player take a knee during the anthem, and Jones has threatened to dismiss any who is moved to do so. Two Cowboys players in 2017, David Irving and Damontre Moore, raised protest fists at the end of anthems. Coincidentally or not, Irving and Moore became former Cowboys.

Interestingly, McCarthy said on Friday that the team is talking through its stance on the anthem — an admission that is more striking when considering Jones’ position over the years.

The usually accessible Cowboys owner, by the way, has yet to make any type of public statement since Floyd’s death, which has drawn criticism from two of the newest Cowboys, Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, and a chorus of others.

All of which reminds me of the vibe when I last visited Cowboys training camp, in 2018, as the NFL was contemplating a hard-line anthem policy. During a post-practice news conference, I asked Prescott for his view of the NFL protests. He was rather adamant.

“I don’t think that’s the time or the venue to do so,” Prescott said in 2018. “The game of football has brought me such a peace, and I think it does for a lot of people watching the game. So when you bring such controversy to the stadium, to the field, it takes away from the love that football brings to a lot of people.”

Although Prescott maintained that he was sensitive to social justice issues, he made it clear back then — with the potential of a long-term contact in play — that he was not the one to test Jones’ line in the sand. In fact, none of the team’s prominent Black players, including Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith, said anything contrary to the company line.

Prescott, at the time, added, “I’m about the action that we can do, rather than the silent protests.”

He’s demonstrated a willingness to take some action in the Julius Jones case. And with that, Prescott’s platform has suddenly grown to be much more significant.

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