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Jerry Jones helped transform the NFL, except when it comes to race

Washington Post

White students at Arkansas' North Little Rock High blocked the doors of the school Sept. 9, 1957, denying access to six Black students. (William P. Straeter/AP)

On the first day of classes at North Little Rock High, a crew-cut sophomore named Jerral Wayne Jones found his spot among a phalanx of White boys who stood at the front entrance and blocked the path of six Black students attempting to desegregate the school.

In a photograph taken at the scene, Jones could be seen standing a few yards from where the six Black students were being jostled and repelled with snarling racial slurs by ringleaders of the mob. At one point, a Black student named Richard Lindsey recalled, someone in the crowd put a hand on the back of his neck. A voice behind him said, “I want to see how a nigger feels.” The ruffian hostility succeeded in turning away the would-be new enrollees.

The confrontation occurred 65 years ago, on Sept. 9, 1957, during the same month that a higher-profile integration effort was taking place at Little Rock Central High in the capital city a few miles away. The story of the Little Rock Nine, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to escort the trailblazing Black students past the spitting hordes, is regarded as a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. It overshadowed the ugly events unfolding contemporaneously at Jones’s high school on the other side of the Arkansas River — an episode mostly lost to history, though not entirely.

The photograph, taken by William P. Straeter of the Associated Press, shows a young Jones wearing a striped shirt, craning for a better view, “looking like a little burrhead,” as he said in a recent interview with The Washington Post, acknowledging his presence on the steps that day. He was one month from turning 15. He had been bulking up by lifting weights and going through two-a-days since August, trying to make the school’s football B-team. The head coach, Jim Albright, had warned there might be trouble and said he “didn’t want to see any of you knot-heads near the front of that school tomorrow.”

That directive did not deter Jones. He showed up near the conflict’s epicenter, stationed on the top landing near the school’s double-leaf entry doors, a face in a rear row of the human bulwark intent on keeping people out because of the color of their skin.

Jones said he was there only to watch, not participate. “I don’t know that I or anybody anticipated or had a background of knowing … what was involved. It was more a curious thing,” he said.

But Straeter’s photographs indicate Jones had to scurry around the North Little Rock Six to reach the top of the stairs before the Black students completed their walk up to the schoolhouse door. And while Jones offered a common explanation of the confrontation — that it was the work of older white supremacists — most of those surrounding the six young Black men were teenagers.

Jerry Jones is now 80 years old, and his face is among the most recognizable in the country. The boy from North Little Rock owns the Dallas Cowboys. “The Cowboys are America,” Jones said when he bought the team in 1989, and there is no denying that they are the most popular and lucrative sports franchise in the country, surpassing the New York Yankees. Nothing on television draws higher ratings than NFL games, and no team draws more viewers than the Cowboys.

With a soft Arkansas drawl that delivers every word as a sweet and succulent morsel, Jones is the singular star of Texas-size glitz. It is no accident that his football palace is popularly known as “Jerry World.” He is an all-hands-on owner who serves as his own general manager and appears in the locker room amid a press swarm after games. But he is more than that. The status of his team and his personality — an irrepressible showman with a self-image as large as his $11-plus billion net worth — have made him arguably the most influential figure in the NFL. He’s 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.

That leads to the issues of race and power and the plight of Black coaches in a game where a preponderance of players are Black yet there are only three Black full-time head coaches. If the NFL is to improve its woeful record on the hiring, promotion and nourishment of Black coaches, Jones could lead the way.

His record in key appointments has been deficient. In his 33 years as owner, Jones has had eight head coaches, all White. During that time, just two of the team’s offensive or defensive coordinators, the steppingstones to head coaching positions, have been Black, including none since 2008. Maurice Carthon, who was offensive coordinator under Bill Parcells in 2003 and 2004, said he had a good relationship with Jones — both grew up in Arkansas — but he never sensed he had a realistic shot at the top job with him. Or with any other owner. “I can’t say that I was close at any time,” Carthon said. “I think all of them are failing.” Carthon retired in 2012 after coaching stints with seven teams.

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