The Jerry Jones Photo Explains a Lot

If you’re wondering why, in professional football, so few Black coaches get hired and Black players struggle to be heard, you can learn a lot from a 65-year-old image of Jerry Jones. In a 1957 photo published late last month by The Washington Post, the future owner of the Dallas Cowboys, then 14, stood among a group of white teenagers who were blocking six Black students from desegregating his Arkansas high school.

In an interview with the Post, Jones minimized his role in the event. “I don’t know that I or anybody anticipated or had a background of knowing … what was involved. It was more a curious thing,” Jones told the newspaper, which has published a series of stories about the NFL’s failure to promote Black coaches over the course of decades.

Jones was a sophomore at North Little Rock High when the photo was taken. You could argue that Jones only was a kid. But as an adult, he hasn’t adequately reflected on what his presence in a crowd of hostile white teens would have meant to Black students, and he hasn’t fundamentally disavowed the narrow, bigoted attitudes that once surrounded him and are still a force in football today.

Jones isn’t just any NFL owner. He may be the most powerful owner in the NFL. The Post’s David Maraniss and Sally Jenkins wrote that Jones is “sometimes referred to as a shadow commissioner, more powerful than Roger Goodell, who holds that title. He has not been shy about exerting his clout as a financial and cultural virtuoso working to shape the league more in his image.”

The racial hierarchy of the NFL is glaring. The majority of NFL players are Black, but owners and head coaches disproportionately are conservative white men. Every now and then—such as after the murder of George Floyd in 2020—the league makes performative statements about racial healing. But outside the public spotlight, the NFL and prominent figures in it have been caught showing bigotry in a variety of forms, including using race-norming to determine concussion settlements and making racist, sexist, and homophobic comments over email.

The old photo of Jones is jarring in part because it confirms what so many Black players and coaches find so unsettling about the NFL. They are navigating a league permeated with both hidden and overt racism, along with other forms of discrimination, and they naturally wonder if the equity they seek will ever be truly prioritized.

Jones could not remotely have been oblivious to the racial tension surrounding desegregation in 1957. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Around the time Jones and his schoolmates were making Black students feel unwelcome, then-Governor Orval Faubus summoned the Arkansas National Guard to block nine Black students from entering nearby Little Rock Central High School. That group eventually needed federal intervention to attend the school.

I would be willing to extend the 14-year-old Jones some grace, because I believe people can overcome the prejudices they grew up with. When I was a teenager, my friends and I commonly ridiculed LGBTQ people. My views evolved dramatically starting during my college years, when I interacted more closely with that community and simply read more about the world.

I’ve been transparent about that history. In contrast, where Jones stands today on matters of race and prejudice isn’t entirely clear. Jones has employed Black players and made many of them very wealthy. But those same players have also helped Jones build the Cowboys into the most valuable franchise in the NFL. The close relationships that Jones has built with individual Black players don’t absolve him of how he has consistently shrunk in those moments when he’s had an opportunity to be a real force for racial progress.

Jones has hired eight head coaches in his 33 years of ownership, and none of them has been Black. He’s hired just two Black coordinators, a position that is considered to be a launching pad to a head-coaching job. In fact, the Cowboys are one of 13 NFL franchises that have never hired a Black head coach.

While Jones has acknowledged that the NFL needs to have a better track record with Black coaches, he also has participated in the sham interviews that many Black coaches are subjected to during the hiring process. In 2003, the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule, a policy that originally required every team searching for a head coach to interview at least one nonwhite candidate. (The league has since expanded the rule to include general-manager, coordinator, and quarterback-coach positions, and now requires teams to interview two nonwhite candidates for head-coaching positions.)

The year the Rooney Rule started, the Cowboys were in search of a head coach. Jones spent two days interviewing the legendary coach Bill Parcells, who was the clear favorite. To satisfy the Rooney Rule, Jones interviewed Dennis Green, who is Black, for 20 minutes by phone.

Since then, he has brushed aside racial-equity concerns in other ways. In 2017, Jones said that he would cut any player who chose to emulate Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who the year prior had begun kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black people. “We cannot in any way give the implication that we tolerate disrespecting the flag,” Jones said then. “We know that there is a serious debate in this country about those issues, but there is no question in my mind that the [NFL] and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag.” (Full disclosure: I am a producer of an ESPN documentary series that Kaepernick and the director Spike Lee are making about the former quarterback’s banishment from pro football.)

Rather than support his players’ right to speak out, Jones chose to flex his power—even though none of the Cowboys had knelt or indicated that they would kneel during the anthem. Jones’s comment was even more disappointing because it came right after then-President Donald Trump urged NFL owners to fire the protesting players. “Get that son of a bitch off the field,” Trump said at a rally. (Jones was among Trump’s financial backers.)

Jones later somewhat softened his view of protests on the field. In 2020—following the trauma-causing deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Floyd—Jones asked Cowboys fans to show compassion toward players who protested during the national anthem. “I’d hope that our fans—and I think they will—understand that our players have issues that they need help on,” Jones said. “They need help from the majority of America.”

What Jones fails to realize, though, is that he is in a better position than almost anyone to promote healing and equity. If Jones really wanted to prove he’s not the boy gawking as a white mob intimidates and threatens Black students, he would have given a Black coach an opportunity to lead the Cowboys, signed Kaepernick when no other NFL owner would touch him, or at the very least publicly advocated for the quarterback’s freedom to express himself without sacrificing his career.

The surfacing of the North Little Rock photo gave Jones yet another opportunity to lead a transparent discussion about race. Instead, Jones chose the cowardly option of blaming youthful curiosity for his presence at the 1957 confrontation. That image can’t just be chalked up to an unfortunate part of the past. Not when the boy in that photo isn’t sufficiently different from the man he is now.

The Atlantic