The day before Thanksgiving, the Washington Post published a lengthy story regarding Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, his historic hiring practices, and his unique ability to influence the change that, no matter how hard the NFL tries, it just can’t engineer.
The article drew the most attention for the fact that it shed light on a photograph of a 14-year-old Jones among a group that was crowding around the entrance to North Little Rock High School as six Black students tried to enter, in September 1957.
After his team’s traditional Thanksgiving Day game, Jones (as he usually does) held court with reporters. As expected, Jones got plenty of questions about the Post story.
“That was, gosh, 65 years ago, and [I was a] curious kid at the time,” Jones said. “I didn’t know at the time the monumental event really that was going on. I’m sure glad that we’re a long way from that.”
Jones again attributed his presence to curiosity that overcame the potential consequences of defying his football coach’s directive to stay away.
“I got criticized because I was more interested in how I was going to be punished by my coaches and everybody for being out front, but nobody there had any idea frankly what was going to take place,” Jones said. “You didn’t — we didn’t have all the last 70 years of reference and all the things that were going and so you didn’t have a reference point there. Still, I’ve got a habit of sticking this nose in the right place at the wrong time.”
Was he punished by his coach for being there?
“Well, I was a young sophomore trying to make the team and they kicked my ass,” Jones said.
Jones nevertheless admitted that he realizes the perception that his presence created, since it wasn’t (as Newy Scruggs of NBC 5 said to Jones) a “welcoming committee” at the front of the school.
“I sure do, and I understand that,” Jones said. “Look, that was 65 years ago, and I had no idea when I walked up there what we were doing. It just is a reminder to me of how to improve and do things the right way. . . . You want to ask me what I was thinking? I was thinking I’m going to get in trouble for being up here, and I didn’t know what was going on. I was 15 years old and so having said that, that’s all that I can remember.”
Asked whether he understands that many Black Americans who grew up during the civil rights era remain bitter about the events of the time, Jones turned defensive, in multiple ways.
“Hey, I’m bitter about a lot of stuff,” Jones said. “I’m bitter about a lot of stuff. I’ve got a lot of first cousins and cousins who have had their ass kicked. We’re all bitter about a lot of things. What I’m talking about is how we approach things, it’s who you know. OK? It’s not the X’s and O’s. It’s who you know.”
The “who you know” line echoes the explanation Jones provided to the Post regarding his failure to hire a Black head coach in 33 years of owning the Cowboys. The mindset actually bolsters the reality that NFL owners (the vast majority of whom are older and white) are more comfortable with those to whom they can best relate, through background, upbringing, life experiences, and/or personal or family connections.
“It’s who you know” has NEVER been regarded as an admirable quality when it comes to making fair and proper employment decisions. The goal has been to ensure that decisions are based on merit, not cronyism or nepotism or any other -ism.
Jones, apparently oblivious to the implication of “it’s who you know,” continued to double down on that dynamic.
“You think Jimmy Johnson [would have] been coaching the Cowboys had I not known him and considered him a friend?” Jones said. “Barry Switzer? Hell, no. That’s who you go. By the way, look who they hired on their staff. Look who they hired. They hired who they knew and who they’d been with for years and years and years.”
Jones also tried to say that all decisions are based solely on business. And he’s right — based specifically on his own, time-honored approach to business.
“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.”
That’s fine, but when it’s time to “make it work” and he needs people to help him “make it work,” what questions is he asking? Is it “how do I find the best possible person for this job even if I don’t know them from Adam?” or is it “who do I know?” and/or “who are my friends?” and/or “who can I trust?” and/or, ultimately, “who am I already comfortable with?”
Very few (hopefully) of the owners who have contributed to the NFL’s admittedly shameful record over many decades when it comes to diversity and inclusion in key positions like head coach have done so because they are racists. It happens because, as they try to “make it work,” they gravitate toward the inherent efficiency of hiring those “who you know.”
It’s a dynamic that is very easy to understand, and equally difficult to eradicate. For people like Jones, it’s so inherent to the way he operates that he doesn’t even realize there’s a potential problem with it.