Of the NFL’s 32 team principals, only Jerry Jones mugs for TV cameras during games, entertains reporters afterward, and has a stadium that’s a monument to his stature in the game. Even the most casual football watcher would recognize the 80-year-old oilman as the face of the Dallas Cowboys – America’s Team – the cultural institution Jones won three championships with in the 1990s.
Where late Raiders owner Al Davis exerted his authority over the league through the court system, Jones came to power through good ol’ fashioned hucksterism, overstating everything from his roster’s Super Bowl prospects to his own indispensability as Cowboys general manager. And while Jones’s ingratiating southern boy routine has no doubt had a heavy hand in lifting the league’s fortunes and making the Cowboys the world’s most valuable sports firm (with a reported worth of $8bn), it has yet to explain why the face of America’s Team can’t own his singular role in one of the more ignominious moments in this country’s past.
On 9 September 1957, while a sophomore at Arkansas’ North Little Rock High, a mob of white boys blocked six Black students from entering the school – and Jones was in the crowd. This was three years after the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools. Also in September 1957, just across town, Little Rock Central High was grabbing headlines across the country as angry mobs and the state’s national guard put themselves between that school and another cohort of Black students – the Little Rock Nine. Last week, as Jones’s Cowboys were to face the New York Giants on Thanksgiving – in what would be the most watched regular-season NFL game ever – the Washington Post dug up a photo of the North Little Rock standoff and found Jones on the periphery, just beyond the cameras and yet still very much in the spotlight.
In a 2010 oral history project for the University of Arkansas, his alma mater, Jones couched his part in the contentious scene at North Little Rock as that of a naïve lookie-loo going against his football coaches’ orders to stay away. “You couldn’t have gotten caught bein’ where you weren’t supposed to be more than that right there,” Jones quipped while distinguishing himself from the true rabble rousers. “The people that were bein’ that way, that literally, physically, with all that gesturin’, with all that, weren’t even students at all.”
He’d reprise that his wrong place/wrong time spin for reporters after the Giants game, calling the incident at North Little Rock “a reminder to me of how to improve and do things the right way.” Unsurprisingly, ESPN’s Stephen A Smith captured the prevailing mood in the country and the pressbox when he said Jones’s indiscretion “was 65 years ago,” while others have been quick to draw a line from Jones’s apparent rubbernecking to him never hiring a Black head coach. What’s interesting is that it’s taken until now for Jones to fully deal with the photo in the mainstream, and it’s not like he wanted for opportunities to bring this up.
He could’ve brought it up six years ago, as Colin Kaepernick was raising a social justice movement among the league’s Black players – and white NFL fans were tuning out in droves. Instead, Jones vowed to bench any Cowboy who “disrespects” the flag, before linking arms and kneeling alongside players and coaches before a 2017 appearance on Monday Night Football – having his cake and eating it, too.
He could’ve brought it up last year as the NFL was negotiating a billion-dollar concussion settlement (during which it confessed to applying different cognitive baselines for non-white players) or even brought it up this year when fired Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores slapped the league with a racial discrimination lawsuit. Instead, Jones said the league “can do better” without acknowledging his continued failure to hire a Black head coach for the Cowboys. Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys current head coach, was hired after Jones held a sympathy interview with ex-Bengals coach Marvin Lewis – which satisfied the NFL’s Rooney Rule requiring teams to interview one external non-white candidate.
The NFL has surely been aware of this ugly Jones photo about as long as it’s been aware of Jones; it’s the kind of thing that could have rightly disqualified him from owning a team at all (much less ‘America’s’), or appointing himself the most prominent spokesman for a league with a plantation perception problem.
People today lose out on college and employment opportunities when their youthful indiscretions, however old, are unearthed. The NBA’s Kyrie Irving had to satisfy a list of six requirements before he could return from a team-imposed suspension. And while there were bound to be repercussions for sharing a link to a film spouting antisemitic stereotypes, at the end of the day, Irving at least can say he wasn’t in the film, and that 18 million social media followers only amount to so much clout in the real world.
Jones, on the other hand, presides over the most prominent franchise in the most watched league in the biggest state in the contiguous 48. His influence runs from the Cowboys locker room to the commissioner’s office to the halls of Capitol Hill. He could have used the moment at North Little Rock, along with his actual clout, to explain why the scene was so charged and persuade upset white football fans to appreciate the perspective of protesting players.
Jones could’ve used that silver tongue of his to sell Texas lawmakers on the value of critical race-based education – which would not only unmask many of Jones’s peers as having been on the wrong side of history and force them to reckon with it, but also underscore to their grandkids that those dark days weren’t all that long ago. (“People my age do have unbelievable stories of just how things were segregated,” Jones said in the 2010 oral history interview.) He could’ve dedicated portions of his life and wealth to keeping the story of Arkansas school integration alive – or, short of that, hooked up one Black student who forgave him, a diehard Cowboys fan, with lifetime season tickets.
Irving, however clumsily, is at least dealing with his immaturity – and, at age 30, is still young and unschooled in so many ways. But by letting this lie, Jones shows he’s no more culturally sensitive than the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Ellie Kemper, who said she wasn’t aware St Louis’ Veiled Prophet secret society of elite white families was “unquestionably” racist and sexist when she was crowned their 19-year-old queen. Jones is no slicker than Donald Trump, conspicuously sheepish about the brazen antisemite and racist he just had around for dinner. And Jones is no more socially progressive than Jeff Bezos, the guy who actually profited from Irving’s contextless tweet. Jones hasn’t even apologized for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For years Jones had always been the model among sports owners, the rare steward who is legitimately invested in winning games and trophies. Usually that comes at the expense of having to do things Jones’s way so he can take the lion’s share of credit when the Cowboys are riding high. It would be a steep price if he didn’t also take the blame in fallow seasons, too.
That’s what makes his snapshot outside North Little Rock High so troubling. Had he owned that, he really would be a different kind of NFL maverick. But by punting responsibility, Jones doesn’t just uphold the same forces that ultimately kept his Black peers from integrating his school. He shows himself for who he truly is: just another empty suit who doesn’t have to answer to anybody for anything.