'I'm genuine': Cowboys' Jerry Jones discusses attending 1950s desegregation demonstration, his perspective on NFL race relations

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys played, and won, a game on Thanksgiving at their home AT&T Stadium.

Following the game, team owner Jerry Jones addressed reporters in the bowels of the stadium often referred to as “Jerry World” in reference to the financial powerhouse of a franchise he has built.

Jones addressed the Cowboys' victory, their growth and their setbacks. As he typically does.

The major difference: He also, at length, addressed a feature that The Washington Post published Wednesday based extensively on Jones' life and interviews with the 80-year-old team owner who doubles as general manager.

The feature, spanning more than 8,000 words, was complex. It included two major, and related, points of emphasis about race relations in America, the NFL and Jones’ personal and professional life.

The first, and introductory, theme centers on an archival photo of Jones attending desegregation efforts in 1950s Arkansas, the Post discussing his mindset at the time and childhood in not-yet-integrated Arkansas (Jones said he interacted with the Black community as a child, including at his father’s grocery store that was integrated.)

The second: The Post asked each of the NFL team owners to discuss the delayed progress of diversity in NFL coaching hires, particularly at the coordinator and head coaching level. Only Jones, who spent more than two hours with the reporters, acquiesced. Jones mostly discussed how he hires who he believes is the best person for the job. The Post interviewed Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay and former Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, both of whom are Black. McClay holds a prominent position in the franchise; Smith has partnered with Jones on business pursuits in the 30 years since he starred for Dallas.

Jones elaborated on both Thursday.

The archival photo of Jones was taken on Sept. 9, 1957, the day six Black students were to attend classes at his North Little Rock High School. This was five days after the famous “Little Rock Nine” episode, for which President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to safely transport nine Black students into Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High. Jones’ high school was roughly 4 miles away.

There, on Sept. 9, North Little Rock students sought to block Black students’ entry. Jones, who was one month shy of his 15th birthday, attended. He says “curiosity” rather than belief in the cause, drew him to the hostile and racist event that ultimately delayed segregation at the school by a decade, per The Post.

“That was, gosh, 65 years ago and curious kid, I didn’t know at the time the monumental event that was going on,” Jones said Thursday night. “I’m sure glad that we’re a long way from that. I am. That would remind me: Just continue to do everything we can to not have those kind of things happen.”

Jones declined to confirm that he regretted attending the demonstration, emphasizing what the teenage Jerry was instead most concerned about: whether he’d get in trouble with his football coach, who had warned players to stay away. (Jones said his coaches indeed “kicked my ass” for attending.)

“Nobody there had any idea, frankly, what was going to take place,” Jones said. “I’ve got a habit of sticking this nose in the right place at the wrong time.

“It is a reminder to me of how to improve and do things the right way. … I’m not cavalier about it. I’m genuine about it.”

Jones initially answered eight questions about the photo before a group of roughly two dozen reporters. At the ninth question, he told the reporter asking that he would be glad to visit but at that point would answer questions about the game.

Several minutes later, as the crowd of reporters thinned, Jones revisited the conversation of his experience with and beliefs on race relations after the game. He spoke of his family growing up in a mostly Black neighborhood in Arkansas, a hometown he has always felt connected to and also brought players including Troy Aikman to visit, Jones said. He emphasized his family’s philanthropic efforts in those neighborhoods, and framed his experiences growing up in segregated times as part of his background.

“Those years certainly marked me and made me a way that, as we all stand here today, we look for ways to get better, ways to do it better,” Jones said. “You may have noticed in the same article I was the only one that volunteered. Of all the owners, I was the only one to talk about it, and I’ll talk about it all day long.

“I’m not afraid.”

Jones also discussed, as he did in The Post article, how necessary connections and networking are for upward mobility in the NFL. He pointed to hiring head coaches Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer after prior friendships, and downplayed how race could factor into networking. Jones said he could help coaches, including Black coaches, network and connect with those who will promote them.

He disputed implications that he would actively avoid hiring diverse candidates, citing how more than 50% of his coaching staff identifies as minority. Advocating for progressive policies on diversity, he said, wasn’t top of mind when he bought the Cowboys and immediately faced financial challenges. Jones said he was “fighting for my friggin’ life” then, focused nearly exclusively on solvency.

Today, Jones has hired and says he will hire diverse candidates when they are his best business option. But he’s not focused on the racial makeup of his staff and active diverse recruitment.

“My goal when I get up in the morning is to make it work,” Jones said. “And I don’t care whether it’s you or you or you. Hell, we’ve got to make it work. That’s where I go. As far as who makes it work, what they look like who makes it work, that has no place in my life. No place.

“It isn’t even a thought about who makes it work.”

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