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

Decades after standing on the frontlines of one of Little Rock’s darkest segregation clashes, the Dallas Cowboys owner has led the league toward new revenue models but has yet to hire a Black head coach

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.

Black Out

This football season, The Washington Post is examining the NFL’s decades-long failure to equitably promote Black coaches to top jobs despite the multibillion-dollar league being fueled by Black players.

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 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 in which 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.

LEFT: Jones, who serves as his own general manager, is as hands-on of an owner as there is in the NFL. (Gus Ruelas/AP) RIGHT: Cowboys fans haven't seen a Super Bowl victory since the 1995 season — and Dallas has managed just four postseason wins since then. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

“What frustrates me most, he is in such a position and such a leader [that] if he would take a stronger stance, he could be the force of change. He could be that guy that pushes the NFL in another direction,” said Dale Hansen, a retired Dallas sportscaster known for his sharp critiques of the Cowboys’ owner. If Jones announced he was hiring a Black head coach “and the rest of you better get in line,” Hansen added: “I think there are a half a dozen NFL teams that would follow that lead. … He’s had the opportunity not only to change the Dallas Cowboys but the NFL and America.”

Jones does not entirely reject that assessment. His media people point to improvements in the team’s hiring record — an all-Black strength and conditioning unit that helps make the coaching staff more than 50 percent Black and a Black vice president of player personnel — along with several Cowboys-sponsored programs to train minority coaches from high school on up. But in a recent interview Jones acknowledged that he and the league had not done enough. When asked whether he believed he had the singular ability to change things, he responded: “I do. What I’m saying is, I understand that.”

[Perspective: Jerry Jones is the Cowboys’ biggest star, and don’t you forget it]

Black men who have worked for Jones felt free to discuss his strengths and blind spots without fear of retribution, a sign that he was open to critiques and willing to listen. They said he has evolved. He puts it differently, saying the issue has gained intensity — with him and throughout the league. Now, he says, when it comes to diversity, “I want to be the first in line.”

Why Jones hasn’t been first in line so far, what he has done or has not done, how he views the dilemma that Black coaches confront in the NFL — those questions are the focus of this story, an examination of the forces that shaped the Cowboys’ owner and his perspectives on race, from the cultural effects of his youth in Jim Crow Arkansas to his rise to power in the confederacy of pro football plutocrats and his actions as an NFL owner. It is based on archival documents and more than 35 interviews with coaches, former players, front-office veterans and labor negotiators, along with Black and White contemporaries from his formative years in Arkansas.

Jones’s responses to questions about that seminal event 6½ decades ago fit a pattern that revealed itself again in his dealings with the issue of Black coaches. He is an enthralling storyteller but also a master of deflection, so absorbed in his own success story that he tends to filibuster and evade when questions get too close to a racial reckoning.

In that respect, Jones sees only what he wants to see. What he wanted to see looking back on that long-ago September day was a picaresque tale of a “mischievous” young Jerry, not the trauma of North Little Rock’s Black community. Deflecting questions about the nastiness of the treatment of the North Little Rock Six, he said his main concern was whether he would get in trouble. “I frankly was worried about my coach kicking my butt for doing exactly the thing they told us not to do,” Jones said, adding that he “had no advance notice” that there would be photographers on the scene who could document his presence.

He did not see what Black people in his community saw. The Black effigy hanging from a lamppost near the schoolhouse steps the next morning. The posse of cuffed-jeans students who belted out “Dixie” as Black students passed by on the way to their segregated school across town. The 12-foot wood-and-tar-paper cross that flickered on a hillside within sight of the football team as it warmed up for its home opener. And, two months later, the swarm of White boys who descended from the high school steps, shouted “Let’s get her!” and pelted Willie Russell Cole, a 58-year-old Black maid, with icy snowballs and smeared her face in the snow as she tried to walk home.

The circle of cronyism

Jerry Jones squints at his own self-made glare. He shades his eyes at the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the Star, the $1.5 billion complex that lurches out of the dun hills north of Dallas. Jones likes to talk about “seeing around corners,” his phrase for the foresight that led him to buy empty tracts of cud-chewed prairie in Frisco, Tex., for $5,000 an acre and build a shimmering sprawl of business parks on it, stretching out toward the aptly named village of Prosper. But at the moment, Jones can’t see a damn thing. The sun blazes off the glass and renders everything in the room backlit. Jones turns his ice-tray-blue eyes away and asks an aide to draw a curtain against the glinting reflection of his empire.

He sits at the head of a sleek marble conference table, which becomes the recipient of his knuckles when he wants to make a point. “My point is …” he will say, punctuating his loquacity with sharp raps. Mostly, Jones’s point is this: Success in the NFL is hard, and anyone who wants it must do what Jones believes he did — play the hero of his own life. He’s the grandson of sharecroppers who made a living by “beating it out of the ground,” as he once put it, yet he somehow built a fortune. Jones is certain that everyone else can play the hero of their lives, too, if they want something as bad as he wanted the Cowboys.

“My whole point is … to those guys that want a head coaching job, now, you got to do some inordinate stuff here, folks,” Jones says. “This stuff doesn’t just drop on you.”

Though the room is now moderately lit, it’s apparent that there is something Jones either can’t or won’t perceive: Black coaches in the NFL are straining to succeed, but they aren’t getting a return on their efforts. A Washington Post investigation found that the Black men who became NFL head coaches in the past decade, on average, spent more than nine years longer than their White counterparts in mid-level assistant jobs. And when they do get the job, they are likely to be fired more quickly. Jones’s own hiring record is proof of this.

The Cowboys have won just four playoff games since the 1996 season, yet Jones has elevated a succession of often-unremarkable White men, frequently based on personal relationships. Among them was Jason Garrett, the son of a longtime Cowboys scout, who lasted 10 years with a winning percentage that hovered around .500.

“It’s not the X’s and O’s. It’s not the Jimmys and Joes. It’s who you know,” Jones admits freely.

That Jones is willing to confront his record amid the NFL’s public race reckoning, which includes a class-action lawsuit filed by Brian Flores that alleges a pattern of racial discrimination, makes him an exception. Of 32 requests issued by The Post to speak with NFL ownership, only Jones agreed to meet for an in-depth conversation. The subject is important to him, he says, because as a seer-around-corners he is a believer in diversity. “It’s the smart way to the future, okay?” he says. Also, it plays into his financials. “Goes right along with it,” he acknowledges. Jones has spent decades building “America’s team” from a quaint slogan into an interlocking business with sponsors such as Ford, which sells “America’s truck,” and Bank of America, which shares office space at the Star — and they don’t want to sell only to White America.

“We get up and go to bed at night asking people to look at us,” Jones observes. “ ‘Don’t turn away. Wait a minute; you’re not paying attention. Look at us.’ That’s what we do.”

[Before he fought for Black coaches, Brian Flores fought for his own place in football]

With great attention, he acknowledges, comes great obligation — but also exposure. When Michael Sam was preparing to become the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft in 2014, a closeted former player asked to meet with owners to discuss homophobia. Pointing straight at Jones, the ex-player said, “This issue would go away if Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys will draft him.” Jones responded by publicly declaring Sam’s sexuality “shouldn’t be an issue,” and he was prepared to draft him but was beaten to it by the St. Louis Rams. When Sam was cut in training camp, the Cowboys picked him up. Jones’s point is, no other team is perceived as having such power to sway public sentiment on issues of bigotry. “The Dallas Cowboys — not anybody else,” Jones says.

Over 2½ hours, Jones mixes plain-spoken country with theatricality. “Part Atticus Finch and part P.T. Barnum,” said an executive who has dealt with him. He meets hard questions with courtesy, and at one point he implores, “Don’t make me come across as trite, please.” But neither will he give entirely satisfying answers. Sometimes he tells stories that end with persuasive, table-rapping declarations. At other times he meanders on disarmingly into jibber-jabber. It’s not that Jones has lost his point, the executive noted. “That’s a Jerry shtick to get out of having to deal with an adverse fact. Everybody should not kid themselves. He’s a smart MF.”

But Jones shoots straight about the fact that the Rooney Rule, the NFL’s attempt to engineer diversity by mandating minority candidate interviews, doesn’t capture how owners make hires. The first head coach Jones hired was his former roommate at the University of Arkansas, Jimmy Johnson, with whom he had won a national championship on an all-White team in 1964. Five years later, he replaced Johnson with another Arkansas buddy with no pro experience, Barry Switzer. The closest Jones came to hiring a Black head coach was another good friend, he says: Dennis Green in 2002. He had gotten to know Green while working together on the NFL’s competition committee, and he wanted Green because he regularly made the playoffs, not to strike a blow for race relations. “ ‘One for diversity’ never crossed my mind,” Jones says. He passed on Green when Parcells agreed to take the job.

The point is: “I didn’t hire Jimmy through an interview. Did I? I didn’t hire Barry Switzer through an interview, okay? And I didn’t want Denny through an interview at the time. But I knew ’em,” Jones says.

[Corporate America loves the Rooney Rule. It has failed the NFL.]

The question, as Jones sees it, is how to escort Black coaches into the circle of cronyism so they don’t have to be interviewed. Jones insists the most avid candidates will find a way in. In May, he spoke at the NFL’s first Accelerator program, at which 62 minority coaches and executives were invited to mingle with owners. Jones cited his Black vice president of personnel, Will McClay, who started out as a scout more than 20 years ago and caught Jones’s eye by showing up at the graduation ceremony of one of his grandkids.

“It’s not, you sit and wait on the phone to ring. That is not the way it works,” Jones said. “The guys that I have seen that have gotten the most out of putting the cowboy hat on and being in the NFL have also been the same guys that are looking around the corner to kind of find every edge they can.”

Jones did not endear himself to his Accelerator listeners with another story about his determination to find any edge. As Jones told it, he was a 30-year-old wildcatter in oil and gas desperate to win the business of a Houston oil company. On a visit to the chief executive’s office, he noticed golf memorabilia. He called his old football coach from Arkansas, Frank Broyles, who was a member at Augusta National Golf Club.

“Coach, can I get you to go to Augusta and play golf with somebody?” Jones asked.

“My goodness, Jerry, it has got to be important,” Broyles replied.

“It’s probably the most important thing since I quit playing for you,” Jones said. “If I could get these people to work with me …”

“Well, I’ll do that for you,” Broyles said.

Jones told the executive he was all set to play at Augusta National — and not only that but Broyles would go 36 holes with him. “You’re kidding me,” the guy said. A couple of weeks later, he summoned Jones back to his office. “Jerry, you’re going to think we’re going to do business with you because I got to play the Masters course. And you’re probably right,” the executive told him.

Jones paused in his storytelling for emphasis, then continued in the voice of his oil mark. “ ‘But let me tell you the real reason. In my mind, anybody that resourceful, anybody who’s wanting it that bad, bad enough to get my butt on Augusta, will pay their bills and not embarrass me with my company. I’m going to go with you. Good job.’ ”

The story landed hard. Jones seemed clueless that invoking a backdoor oil deal at a rich man’s private club in the Deep South, notorious for not admitting its first Black member until 1990, was less than useful advice to the men sitting in front of him.

“It was not good,” recalled someone who was in the audience. “It was very much a ‘be grateful you’re in the NFL and have this opportunity’ tone. … I don’t know any White guys who let me bring my friends to the Masters on a random whim. I don’t have that type of access.”

Asked how he imagined that story sounded to a mid-level Black coach whose network does not include White members of Augusta National — and who has met an implacable resistance that NFL owners will not name — Jones falls quiet.

In many ways, Jones is the NFL owners’ representative man. He is 80. Twelve owners were born in the 1940s or earlier. Collectively, the owners’ average age is 70. Generationally, most grew up in the era of segregation. Socially, most of them continue to move in circles that are just as racially segregated today. They share the certainty bred by great wealth; they have been right more often than not in commerce and therefore don’t take kindly to being told how to think or conduct their business.

But at this moment, Jones is trying to think. After nearly 20 seconds, he says gently: “We are not born equal. Anybody that says we’re equal, well, you’re wrong. … Some of us can talk it better than others. Some of us were better quarterbacks in college. … You got to figure your angle out. Lay awake, figuring it out. If you want it as bad — remember, you’re trying to get something that’s almost impossible to get, one of these jobs — you somehow got to figure the angle out. And that’ll separate the ones that can.”

A town with racial tension

An essential way to understand Jerry Jones on issues of race is through the place from which he came. There is more to it than that day when he stood at the schoolhouse door.

Jones said he always felt at ease interacting with people of color, even though he operated in all-White environments as a student and a football player in Arkansas and even though that racial bubble continued as he went on to make his fortune in insurance and oil before buying the Cowboys. “Very comfortable in my own skin doing what I do” is how he put it, and he attributed that sensibility to the fact that he had been around Black people so much outside of school during his younger days. The extent to which that was true reflected the contradictory ways Southern Whites dealt with racial relationships.

By the time Jones bought the Cowboys, his father, John Watson Jones, known to the world as Pat, was a wealthy insurance executive in the Missouri Ozarks, where he also operated the nation’s largest exotic animal park and bopped around his property in a Cadillac convertible with longhorns on the hood. But for most of Jerry’s youth, Pat and his wife, Arminta, owned a grocery in the Rose City neighborhood of North Little Rock near the main highway leading to Memphis. The family at first lived in apartment No. 1 above Pat’s Super Market, which sold everything from Christmas trees to ammo for duck hunters who stopped on their way down to the hunting lodges near Stuttgart.

[The Black girl who defied segregation, inspiring MLK and Jackie Robinson]

The store also was an entertainment bazaar with Pat, a diminutive dandy who stood 5-foot-6, often dressing up as a Wild West cowboy and sashaying down the aisles with six-shooters strapped to his holster, and with a legendary radio personality nicknamed “Brother Hal” setting up shop in the middle of the store, spinning country and western records. Although Pat was not religious, he claimed he had converted to Seventh-day Adventism so he could get a religious exemption to keep his store open on Sundays, when other groceries were closed by blue laws.

The son’s personality and views on money, work and race all derived from Pat. “Everybody who sees Jerry now, who sees his success as a salesman, every bit of that came from Papa Pat,” said Don Caple, Jones’s lifelong pal, whose father ran a tractor company next to the supermarket. “As good as Jerry is, he isn’t half the showman and marketing sales guy that his dad was.”

Unlike most establishments in the area, Pat’s Super Market was integrated. Black customers were not forced to enter through a back door. One of Jerry’s early jobs was handing out shopping circulars in Dixie Addition, a Black neighborhood a mile away. He came to know “every plank on every porch in the entire Afro-American village,” walking the unpaved tree streets — Plum and Cherry and Laurel — that flooded when it rained, water seeping into ramshackle houses where old newspapers filled cracks in the walls and there was no indoor plumbing. Jones said he “got familiar with the faces of all the people” and from that experience — and from watching his father deal with customers — gained empathy for the human condition of all races.

The father’s affinity for working people led him to run for public office, seeking a seat in the Arkansas legislature months after the events at North Little Rock High. In his campaign literature, he presented himself as a populist promising to help “every working man and woman. Carpenters, Railroad Men, Grocery Clerks …” Yet Pat Jones did not break from the prevailing attitude when it came to the desegregation issue roiling the community. Selling food to Black people was one thing; attending school with them was another. “I stand for states’ rights,” he declared during the campaign. States’ rights served as shorthand for segregation.

When Jerry Jones is asked about this, he first responds by saying the question implies that states’ rights are a bad thing. Then he deflects the issue by placing it in the context of his desire for independence as an owner. “I’m a states’ rights guy in the NFL,” he says. “I just believe the club should have the power,” not the league office. Finally, after recounting a madcap adventure in which he tried to place an oversize “Pat Jones for State Representative” sign on a sawed-off butane tank floating in the middle of the Arkansas River (it sank), he notes that his father was hurt after he lost the race, undone by Black constituents who failed to vote for him. “He thought he had been a great brother. For the populists. But particularly minorities.”

If Pat Jones’s positions on civil rights were uneven, those of his father, Jerry’s grandfather, were clear and documented. Joe Israel Jones was a cotton farmer who oversaw fields at Bredlow Corner near the town of England, about 30 miles southeast of Little Rock. Pat was one of eight children reared in the family’s dogtrot house in the cotton patch.

The region was a center of white supremacy. A large political rally there in February 1956 drew Klansmen from throughout the Deep South, including leaders of the Arkansas branch of the White Citizens’ Council. Its Little Rock offshoot was the Capital Citizens’ Council, which played a key role in inciting virulent protest of desegregation at the high schools. Its local leader, furniture store owner Amis Guthridge, asserted that integration was a communist plot “founded in Moscow … to mongrelize the White race in America.”

[Why free speech makes it difficult to prosecute white supremacy in America]

In the archives at Little Rock City Hall, there is a manila envelope that contains a membership roll listing 514 dues-paying members of the Capital Citizens’ Council. Included on that list are the grandparents of Jerry Jones — “Mr. and Mrs. Joe Jones, Route 1, England.”

During his interview with The Post, Jerry Jones says he had no idea that his grandfather belonged to the citizens’ council, then tells a story about how, 10 years after he bought the Cowboys, a newspaper in his grandfather’s hometown proclaimed Joe I. Jones and his family “the hardest workers in all of the county.” The facts are not mutually exclusive.

He also says his father as a boy often ate at the homes of Black workers. “My grandmother … would point to a house and say, ‘Pat, when he was a little older than you, he’d be down there eating side meat.’ ” The taste for soul food ran in the family. Jerry recalls that his mother would fix a dinner of “soft chitlins, turnip greens, cornbread and all of the soul kind food you could think of” made from food past its sell-by date.

LEFT: Bredlow Corner, near England, Ark., was the home of Jones's grandparents. (Will Newton for The Washington Post) RIGHT: England is about 30 miles southeast of Little Rock. (Will Newton for The Washington Post)

Jerry spent his childhood summers working in the family’s cotton fields, providing water to workers. “Me and maybe a cousin would be the only White people out there,” he said. In a 2010 oral history with the University of Arkansas, Jones recalled that once, when a Black cotton-picker “was a little sassy,” Jerry and the cousin poured an ice bucket over his head, then “ran like we have never run before in our lives.”

Mischief is a common motif in Jones’s memories. He remembers how he and two Black playmates, Billy and Kenny, would hide between Pat’s Super Market and the Caple Tractor Co. next door and hurl rotten cabbages at cars heading down East Broadway. His buddy Don Caple recalled them tossing a baseball around with Johnny Smith, whose mother cleaned a nearby church. “Then one day Johnny didn’t come by anymore,” Caple said. The implication was, at a certain age, Black and White kids stopped playing like that.

[Examining a racial slur entrenched in American vernacular that is more prevalent than ever]

Mike Gilliam, a contemporary from Dixie Addition who also passed out circulars for Pat’s Super Market and attended Scipio A. Jones High, the all-Black school in town, said he played interracial pickup tackle football games in an open field next to the KC Baking Company. The White team would include Jones and Caple and their buddy Billy Joe Moody. There was “never any racial tension in those games,” Gilliam said.

Those games were an exception to the racial tension in town. L.T. Terry, who lived in the Black enclave of Dark Hollow, recalled how White teenagers “would come riding down the streets” at night and throw eggs and soap at the Black kids. Terry kept a stash of rocks hidden nearby to retaliate, calling them alley biscuits. He also remembered how police officers would park in the middle of the street outside a club, saunter inside, yank the jukebox plug from the wall and “use the n-word loud and clear” as they ordered everyone out. Scipio Jones alumni Carolyn Myrie and Matlrus Neely recalled how Black teenagers could go to the Rialto Theater on Tuesdays, restricted to the balcony, but were required to use the bathroom across the street at the ramshackle older Princess, which smelled of urine. They retaliated by throwing popcorn down on the White kids.

A conspicuous blank spot

Jones was 23 when he first tried to buy a football team. He was straight out of Arkansas, his face still a hard triangle of youth, working for his father selling insurance “on a thousand-dollar-a-month draw,” he said as if that were poor. It left him flat bored. He missed the keenness that football gave him. When the nascent American Football League, which had its inaugural season in 1960, convened an event in Houston, he saw a chance to pair moneymaking with passion. He hung around the hotel lobby glad-handing rich guys such as Joe Robbie, founder of the Miami Dolphins, and oilman Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs. “I just lived and breathed, somehow, some way, that happening,” Jones said.

In 1966, when Barron Hilton put the San Diego Chargers up for sale with an asking price of $5.8 million, Jones mustered a bid. Somehow he put together a million-dollar line of credit. “I didn’t have it. Okay?” he said. Yet he was granted an option to buy the team. Then he went to talk to his father. “He was so mad at me, he could kill me,” Jones said. The AFL was a huge gamble, still struggling for profitability, and the debt would be crushing, Pat insisted.

“Son, you had a great experience in college. Get it out of your head,” Pat said. “You got to go to work. You got to get in business. You can’t be like this, Jerry.”

“Well, Dad, it’s my life’s dream,” Jones replied.

“You’re not old enough to have a life’s dream,” Pat fired back. “Get your head on right. You’re just hopeless.”

Jones surrendered. But he didn’t quit pining to get into football, and his drive to buy a team initially put him in debt, as his father predicted. He speculated in real estate, trying to make a quick strike. But he got behind on the loans. One day he flew into Love Field in Dallas and went to the rental car desk. When he handed over his credit card, the rental agent cut it in half.

“Man, you need to learn how to pay your bills,” the agent said.

Jones’s point is, when it comes to meeting a seemingly impassable obstacle: “I have felt it. … This is a tough get.”

But one man’s “tough get” is another man’s soft landing. Through it all, Jones had access — to lines of credit, C-suites and golf courses. And to politicians, who, when his wildcatting oil and gas wells came in, granted him a sweet deal to provide energy to the state of Arkansas at a locked-in price. And so, in 1989 Jones became that brash rich ’un who bought the Cowboys for a then-record $140 million.

That is not to say it was easy. It took every penny he had, and he borrowed plenty more. As he often recites, he paid top dollar for a decrepit asset that had finished 3-13 in 1988 and was bleeding a million dollars per month. “When I bought this team, it wasn’t to find a place to make money,” he said. “I had a little, and I gave it all … to get to be a part of football.”

It was a scary-big bet, and over the next five years he would at times choke on the pressure. In 1995, he had a chance to sign extraordinary polymath-athlete Deion Sanders, but it would require a $13 million signing bonus — almost as much as the down payment he made for the team. “I had a real tough time with it,” Jones said. He flew to Arkansas to think it over. He revisited his old neighborhood, walked the streets where he had grown up. He asked himself, “Have I lost my compass here?” But then he told himself: “That was then. This is now. Going for it.” He got back on the plane, flew back to Dallas and cut the check. Sanders helped the Cowboys to their third Super Bowl title in four years.

Mid-anecdote, Jones’s throat closes, and he ducks his head and begins to cry over the difficulty of his NFL journey. “I’ve got one thing to say about all this: This is human stuff,” he says. Tears spill out of those melting-ice-tray eyes. The crying puzzles him so much that he admits he has consulted experts about it.

“I’ve asked doctors, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” he says. “ ‘How can this be?’ I’ll do it making a speech, or I’ll do it talking like this. And they said, ‘Well, you’ve had a real emotional experience.’ ”

If it’s true, as Jones says, that “the Cowboys are America,” then Jones himself is America, too. He has a consuming preoccupation with expansion. Some NFL owners are good at making money. Jones is good at finding new vistas. He goes to the next horizon, and the rest of the league invariably follows. He made the Cowboys the first team to actively market to women, the first to monetize training camp as an entertainment event. In 2005, he altered big-event architecture with his colossus vision for AT&T Stadium when it opened four years later: part arena, part luxury conference center, part mall and part art gallery.

But league executives say there was one issue Jones never pressed or even expressed much of an opinion on: race. Before and after the Rooney Rule was instituted in 2003, the league regularly discussed its embarrassing minority hiring record. Jones seemed uninterested. “Other things have been more important,” one longtime former team executive said. “Being powerful — that’s what is important to him.”

It’s a conspicuous blank spot, given Jones’s longtime place on the NFL’s labor committee. He has been a lead negotiator with the players in collective bargaining and therefore should be attuned to the concerns and grievances of the Black men who have composed roughly 60 to 70 percent of the league’s workforce.

Those who have sat across the bargaining table from Jones describe him as alternately domineering, diplomatic and folksy — and occasionally patronizing. In one instance, Jones began to explain mortgages to the players in the room. “The simplest financial things like they were 9 years old,” recalled one person familiar with the bargaining sessions. In response, a Black player pointedly mentioned that he had been talking to Warren Buffett because he was a major investor with him.

“He has a history of being quite dismissive and arrogant towards players in bargaining, but I can’t honestly say it’s completely race-driven because I’ve seen it with the Black players and White players,” the person said. “He’s sort of an equal opportunity condescender.”

Jones’s main interest in collective bargaining was always the same — maximum growth. “He has no opinion other than money,” said Domonique Foxworth, a former president of the players union who is now an ESPN commentator. But this actually made him easier to negotiate with than some owners. “Jerry is usually the quickest person to get to the deal point,” said a person familiar with league affairs. “If Jerry thinks that the deal should be done, he’s the one that tells the other owners, ‘Sit back down.’ ”

When talks get hot, Jones will break the tension with a homespun joke. “This negotiation’s got me lower than a crippled cricket,” he said during tense labor talks in 2011, breaking up the room. When matters threatened to stall over a single line, Jones moved matters along by cracking, “Now we’re just circumcising a mosquito.”

Jones’s skill as a negotiator finally led him to a public gesture on behalf of racial justice — though a hedging one. In 2016, he was a hard-liner against Colin Kaepernick’s political demonstrations. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback was alienating the audience, Jones believed, by taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. According to someone who discussed matters with him, “Jerry’s bottom line was always: ‘It’s bad for our business; it’s distracting America from football.’ ” Jones decreed that his players would stand for the flag, “toe on the line,” or be benched.

[Perspective: This is why Colin Kaepernick took a knee]

But then President Donald Trump blew up the issue and threatened to divide Jones from his team. At a 2017 event, Trump targeted NFL owners, declaring that if a player refused to stand for the anthem, the owners should fire “that son of a bitch.” Defiant players launched a wave of protests in response. It became apparent that a number of Cowboys intended similar action during a nationally televised game.

Jones moved carefully. He consulted various coaches and players. But the deepest conversation he had was with McClay, his longtime player personnel adviser, whose father had served as a Marine in Vietnam. McClay firmly believed the players had the right to protest. He decided he had to give Jones his frank opinion. McClay had been reared in Houston, where his father had come home from the war only to find that as a Black man he couldn’t get a home loan. McClay said he knew his family and friends would ask him “what conversation I had with somebody in a position of power.”

He told Jones that no good could come from forcing strong-willed young Black men into compliance. “You can’t dictate,” he said. To his relief, Jones listened without resentment. “I wouldn’t have been doing him any justice if I just said whatever I thought he wanted me to say,” McClay recalled. “… And however he took it, he took it.”

Jones arrived at a compromise. He convened a team meeting and suggested that the Cowboys make a unified gesture — and he would join them. “Do you guys think I have your back?” he asked. “Your best interests?”

Jones could ask the question without flinching. He believes he has genuine long-term relationships with the men on his roster. He keeps what he calls “a late line” in his home, a dedicated phone on which they can reach him in emergencies. He has a reputation for aiding players in legal trouble; among other instances, he stood by former offensive lineman Nate Newton as he served federal prison time on drug trafficking charges. “I get right in the middle of it,” Jones says. “I do. I get in the middle of the players.”

One of Jones’s closest player-friends is Emmitt Smith, the Hall of Fame running back. Smith was a rookie with the Cowboys in 1990 when he approached Jones with a request: “Could I come and just sit on your couch and listen to you work? … Because when I’m done running, I want to be a business guy,” Smith said.

The request spoke straight to Jones’s hustling heart. He left a standing order with his secretary that Smith was welcome in his office. “From that point on, I had an open door. … Jerry was always open to sharing his world or his information if the person was willing to ask the right question,” Smith said. Jones and Smith, who has become an entrepreneur, would eventually do deals together. Occasionally, Jones took Smith along on business trips. They would chat about the drive that helped Jones build his fortune. “I’d walk across Texas for five dollars,” Jones confided to Smith.

It was with this history in mind that Jones met with his team over the anthem controversy. He promised he would have his players’ backs “long after you quit catching passes or toting the ball.” Then Jones did what he does best: He struck a deal.

“So I’m going to ask this,” he said. “I will kneel with you in solidarity. Stand with me at the flag.”

On the field that Monday night, Jones locked arms with his players and took a knee. The Cowboys then rose as the anthem struck up. It pleased almost no one. Boos were interspersed with the notes that came from the loudspeakers. Watching on TV, some players and executives viewed this less as an act of solidarity than as a piece of classic Jones business exigency.

“That’s just Jerry reaching the deal point, right?” one said.

[‘Trump can’t divide this’: Cowboys, along with owner Jerry Jones, kneel before anthem in Arizona]

Whatever the motive, in the seasons since, Jones’s language on player protest has softened. At his preseason news conference in 2020, he talked about finding a position of “grace” on the issue. “I’d hope that our fans — and I think they will — understand that our players have issues that they need help on,” Jones said during his weekly local radio spot on Dallas radio station 105.3 the Fan. “They need help from the majority of America.”

To McClay, they were important statements, given whom they came from. “He is the unspoken mouthpiece for the league,” McClay said. “When something needs to get done, they go to Jerry. For someone of his power and strength within the league to say, ‘Hey, we need to look at this,’ that’s a positive change. … So whatever the motives or ulterior motives, he did it.”

Whatever happens, do not respond

Military Heights, Tie Plant, Dixie Addition, Dark Hollow — those were the Black neighborhoods in the North Little Rock of Jerry Jones’s youth. They were scattered pockets around the city, all in swampy lowlands. Many families settled there to work in the rail yards, and the children were funneled to Scipio A. Jones, where their schoolbooks were tattered rejects from North Little Rock High. Starting in ninth grade, they were required to buy outdated books that had names and often slurs scrawled inside. Many could not afford the books and went without.

There were no school buses. The students took city buses, forced to sit in the back, or walked. Those who lived in Military Heights walked directly past North Little Rock High. Harold Gene Smith, who lived four blocks away, had to trek two-plus miles to reach Scipio Jones. He often made the journey on his Union No. 5 roller skates.

Smith was one of the North Little Rock Six, along with Richard Lindsey, Eugene Hall, Gerald Persons, Frank Henderson and William Henderson. They all lived in Military Heights and had good grades. On the first day of school in their senior year, they assembled at Smith’s home at 415 West 22nd St. for the most trying morning of their young lives.

Lindsey came in his Sunday shoes. He was there because an aunt had told him to go. Persons was coaxed into being there by his older sister. Smith, whose father was a successful Black businessman, agreed with his dad that this was something that had to be done. Four ministers from the African Methodist Episcopal Church were there to lead them.

The plan was that they would walk up 22nd Street, turn left up the long rise to the school’s front entrance, step inside and attend classes. Reports of the plan had been circulating around town. A hostile crowd would await them. They were instructed on how to walk. Straight line. Don’t look down. Keep looking up as you walk. Whatever happens, do not respond.

[Analysis: America is more diverse than ever — but still segregated]

The procession began before 8 a.m. and was uneventful at first. “And then about three blocks from school … the White people came out of nowhere,” Lindsey recalled. “Finally we got to the opening where you walk into the school, and that’s when they seemed to come from all four sides” and the name-calling began.


“Go home!”

“This is not your school!”

Eight steps to the first landing, they stopped for a moment. That’s when someone reached out and touched Lindsey’s neck.

But they walked on, 30 feet to the next set of steps. “And the crowd got larger … and you couldn’t see over their heads anymore and they were all over the place and all you could do was walk,” Lindsey recalled. Eleven stairs to the second landing, then the crowd encircled them. Ten more stairs to the final landing but no farther. Between them and the front door stood 10 or 12 toughs, the ringleaders. Shouts, pushes, shoves. A retreat through the crowd, back toward the street.

Soon they turned around to try again. Up the rise once more, the crowd surging. A few dozen boys rushed past them to get near the entrance and form the human bulwark. Smith saw only anger in the eyes surrounding him. “So [we] just stood there,” Lindsey said, “and they kept the name-calling and they kept all the other stuff going. And we waited.”

Straeter photographed the scene. There, in the upper right of his frame, stood Jerry Jones.

More pushing and shoving from the toughs sent them back down the stairs. The desegregation effort was over. North Little Rock High would not integrate for almost a decade. Richard Lindsey was transformed by the trauma of that day. “Instead of being a loudmouthed dummy, I changed,” he said. He became quieter, more studious. Anger burned inside him for a time but gradually faded to determination. He, like all of the North Little Rock Six, he said, would go on to college. Some of them would go into business, some into the military. Frank Henderson, a sergeant in the Army’s infantry, was killed in Vietnam in 1967. Lindsey would eventually take over his family’s restaurant business.

Lindsey did not know Jones then or any of the White boys who stood between him and the school that day. But later, while working at his uncle’s restaurant, Lindsey’s Barbecue, the most popular ribs joint in town, he would see Jones and exchange pleasantries with him at the counter. By then he had heard through the Black grapevine that Jones had been in the crowd on that traumatic September morning. But he never brought it up.

‘Why didn’t you do more?’

Now and then during the interview, Jones speaks with regret as he recalls the segregated society in which he lived. He remembers sitting on a city bus, virtually empty up front where he was, as Black passengers crammed in near the back. “I’ll be very candid with you,” he said. “I’ve often asked: ‘Why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you get up and have them come up on the bus and sit rather than standing back there? Why didn’t you do more?’ ”

Perhaps Will McClay can offer an answer. When he was 7, riding his bike near his home in Houston, he was approached by a White girl who asked: “Where’s your tail? My parents said you all had tails.” McClay went to his parents, distraught. “And my mom, who had hoses turned on her, and my dad, who went to Vietnam and came back and couldn’t get a house, … told me that the best way for people to learn is for you to show them and give them an example.”

What Jerry Jones needed to hear — and seemed willing to hear, McClay said — were examples of what it was like to be a Black coach trying to succeed in the NFL: “He’s never been told that he had a tail.”


A previous version of this story mistakenly said Frank Henderson was a sergeant in the Marines. He was a sergeant in the Army's infantry.

About this story

Additional reporting by Emily Giambalvo and Clara Ence Morse. Editing by Matt Vita and Steven Ginsberg. Copy editing by Michael Petre. Photo editing by Toni L. Sandys. Design and development by Brianna Schroer and Joe Fox. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Project management by Wendy Galietta.