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Cowboys’ Jerry Jones should use his influence and resources to be a stronger advocate for NFL diversity.

How many times have you heard Jerry Jones say something that made you wonder, “Did he just say that?”

This came to mind during a recent extended interview with the Dallas Cowboys owner, during which we discussed race, including the outpouring of criticism that followed the publication of a 1957 photo of Jones in the background of a disturbance in which a mob of white students blocked six Black students from integrating North Little Rock High School, and his role in NFL diversity efforts.

I asked Jones, arguably the NFL’s most powerful owner, why he hasn’t been a stronger advocate for diversity in the league.

“The people they put on the diversity committee,” Jones said, “I would have gladly been there if they had put in the Jerry Jones Rule rather than the Rooney Rule.”

What is the Jerry Jones Rule?

The Rooney Rule was, of course, named after Dan Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner who, in the early 2000s, collaborated with then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue – under the threat of legal action led by attorneys Johnnie L. Cochran and Cyrus Mehri – to establish the mandate that teams interview minority candidates for head coaching vacancies (which has been revised multiple times and now includes other key positions). Rooney oversaw the NFL’s diversity committee, which is now led by his son, Steelers owner Art Rooney II.

The Cowboys, who play the Buccaneers in the first round of the NFC playoffs on Monday night, are one of 13 NFL teams that have never had a Black coach in a league where an estimated two-thirds of the players are Black.

While acknowledging this, Jones mentioned the NFL’s new Diversity Advisory Committee, a group of outside experts assembled last spring as another resource.

“I was the first owner to volunteer with the professional group they organised to come in and visit with every owner and not only give them ideas but also get their ideas,” Jones explained. “I was the first person in line.”

Yet, not long ago, Jones was widely regarded as the NFL’s face of resistance due to his tough, “toes on the line” stance against players kneeling during Colin Kaepernick-inspired protests during the national anthem, which aimed to draw attention to police slayings of Black people and social injustices. This infuriated many Black Cowboys fans, including NBA superstar LeBron James, who has publicly stated that he is no longer a Cowboys fan.

While Jones maintains that his opposition to the protests was motivated more by business and the use of the NFL stage than by social statements, a significant number of fans, particularly minorities, could better relate to the need to bring attention to social injustices. Jones tried a compromise during one game, kneeling with players away from the flag before the anthem, then standing for the anthem. However, the majority of the criticism was directed at him for threatening the jobs of Cowboys players who knelt. The NFL overruled the stance, but no Cowboys protested, with the exception of a couple of marginal players who took a knee and were later released.

“Whatever I am or became, it wasn’t because I wasn’t genuinely trying to give everybody the best I could to get the issues and handicaps (minorities) face resolved,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s how I do it. So you say, ‘I disagree with that,’ but it’s not because I’m not pouring my soul out… and it’s not because I’m insensitive to bias. You’re getting the best I have. My grandson receives the same treatment. The same principles apply to what the NFL is all about.”

In any case, when the 1957 photo of a 14-year-old Jones on the wrong side of history was published – despite his claim that he was there as a curious teenager – it was easy for some to connect the dots to his stance on the anthem protests.

Hello there, lightning rod. Typically, the NFL’s most visible owner appears to dismiss criticism with ease. However, the recent race-related firestorm seemed to sting.

“You understand my heart,” he said.

Growing up during the Jim Crow period
Jones maintained that his Jim Crow-era upbringing in Little Rock heightened his sensitivity, despite the fact that he never attended school with Black classmates and played on all-white teams in high school and at the University of Arkansas. Jerry worked as a teenager at his father’s grocery store, which was progressive for the time because it was desegregated.

Jones described the store as a community hub where people would gather and distribute emergency supplies during times of crisis. Then there was his Uncle Jack, who Jones claimed led the only white family to live in Little Rock’s College Station for 40 years (where, shortly after he bought the Cowboys, he took the team on a relief mission after a tornado).

Jones was undoubtedly eager to share such details about his family history in order to counteract the backlash he’s received over the photograph.

“I have lived my life without a single biassed bone in it,” he declared. “It was just part of the sensitivity that defined my young life.”

Jones used the words “sensitivity” or “sensitive” at least two dozen times during our visit to make a point.

When it was mentioned that a Washington Post story revealed that his grandfather was a member of the Citizens Council, which typically promoted racist causes, Jones said the first time he heard about it was from one of the Post’s authors.

Could he do more with his power?

I’ll never forget Jones’ response several years ago when I sat in his office and expressed my belief that, given his profile and platform, he could have a significant impact on social issues.

“I know,” he stated unequivocally.

Even though he and his family have made numerous community service contributions, it appeared that being that type of influencer was not a high priority. He then preached about the diverse demographics of the Cowboys’ fan base and the business of his team. It was the same philosophy that was expressed during the anthem protests.

Jones is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor to the game, having been at the forefront of media deals, labour agreements, marketing, and the development of stadiums and revenue streams for the league. However, Jones can make another significant impact by demonstrating and promoting the benefits of diversity in business.

“I’ve been in the league for quite some time,” Jones said. “You’re familiar with me. “Would you say I’m sensitive to diversity?”

Sure, the Cowboys have made some notable hires from diverse backgrounds during Jones’ reign, which began in 1989. No, Jones has never hired a Black general manager (he is his own), but Will McClay, a Black man who has risen through the ranks to become vice president of personnel, is one of the team’s highest-ranking executives. Jones hired former Cowboys running back Calvin Hill and his wife, Janet, in the 1990s to build what has grown into a robust player development programme that includes counselling services. The culture that Jones has helped to instil with the Cowboys includes several stories about how he has financially or otherwise assisted some former Black players who have faced difficult circumstances.

According to USA TODAY Sports research, the Cowboys have one of the most diverse coaching staffs in the NFL, with minorities accounting for 50% of the assistants assembled by Mike McCarthy, tied for the sixth-highest rate in the league. They also have the distinction of being the only NFL team with three Black strength and conditioning coaches. However, by another metric, it isn’t as progressive: none of the four coaches listed as coordinators or higher are minorities.

Still, in order to live up to the “America’s Team” moniker, the Cowboys are constantly on the lookout – beyond the big TV ratings – as social issues like equal opportunity increasingly intersect with the NFL’s business.

“I’m extremely sensitive,” Jones admitted. “I’m a poor boy (-turned-billionaire) that has had a chance through sport and work to use what you can do in this country, to get a platform.

“I would encourage everyone to do that. Be as sensitive and as clever as you can on your way there, because when you win, you’ll have the financial strength to truly give, to do something. To be clear – and I understand this is sensitive material – that was the rationale behind ‘I’ll kneel with you away from the flag, stand with me at the flag.’ We’re all together.”

It’s a noble subject. The challenge for Jones now is to use his vast resources to help level the playing field.

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