sportsCowboys

Decades after Little Rock photo, it’s not too late for Jerry Jones to make a difference

The only way the NFL can put its past behind it is if owners start gambling on Black coaches as willingly as they do on white ones.

The 65-year-old photograph of Jerry Jones standing on the wrong side of history doesn’t make him a racist now any more than it did then, though it begs the question. He tells us he was simply curious. And that’s supposed to explain why he bounded up the steps and around the Black students trying to enter North Little Rock High before they were denied by a blockade of white male students. The photo ran on the cover of The New York Times in the fall of ‘57. Only days before he turned 15, Jerry had already made the big time.

His excuse for showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time is that he simply wanted a better view. Even if he wasn’t down front leering over the shoulder of the guy with a cigarette in the corner of his smirk, Jerry didn’t try to help, either. He was only a teenager, you say. So was most of the crowd. His peers. Hard to imagine any time in his 80 eventful years when Jerry didn’t wield considerable influence among his own, good or bad.

If he was guilty of anything then, it’s the same as his culpability now:

Doing nothing to change the status quo.

Jerry concedes his ability to be an agent for change in the NFL, which is why he was willing to be interviewed by The Washington Post about the photo and the bigger picture of the paper’s nine-part series on the NFL’s failure to hire Black coaches. One of the co-writers, Sally Jenkins, Dan’s daughter and a legend in her own right, not only gives Jerry points for talking about the lack of diversity among the NFL’s head coaches when no other owner would, she concedes that whatever he did or didn’t do back then, you can’t hold it against him now.

But it’s certainly fair to ask how much he may have evolved since, just as it’s fair to question his track record and his peers’. Because it sure seems like the NFL is going backward.

Eleven years ago, nine Black head coaches worked league sidelines. In 2018, there were six. Now it’s three. Even though Black players make up nearly 60% of NFL rosters, 13 franchises have never hired a Black head coach. Jerry hasn’t done anything to alter that history, either.

Over 33 years owning the world’s most valuable sports franchise, he’s hired eight of its nine head coaches. It’s not exactly a Hall-of-Fame relay. More miss than hit, and that’s even after hitting it out of the park on his first swing.

Defiant white students at Arkansas' North Little Rock High School block the doors of the...
Defiant white students at Arkansas' North Little Rock High School block the doors of the school, denying access to six African-American students enrolled in the school Sept. 9, 1957. Moments later the African American students were shoved down a flight of stairs and onto the sidewalk, where city police broke up the altercation. (AP Photo/William P. Straeter)(William P. Straeter / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Before Jimmy Johnson left in a huff, Jerry famously said any one of 500 coaches could have won those two Super Bowls, which probably said as much about his opinion of coaches in general as it did his snit with Jimmy. Hard to say if his take has changed much since. He’s gone big (Bill Parcells) and little (Dave Campo); brash (Barry Switzer) and bland (Chan Gailey); folksy (Wade Phillips) and automaton (Jason Garrett). No matter who’s been in charge, the results have mostly been the same.

Jerry told the Post he hires people he knows, which is why he interviewed Denny Green, the second Black head coach in modern NFL history, before hiring Parcells in 2003. But his interview with Green was over the phone, so it’s hard to say just how serious he was.

Despite the rise of the Cowboys in a watered-down league, the jury remains out on Mike McCarthy. In some ways, he resembles a couple of the above. He’s won big, like Parcells. Also got a little of Bum’s boy in him.

But unless he coaches the Cowboys deep into January in this Super Bowl-or-bust season, McCarthy will end up just like the coaches who preceded him.

And what will Jerry do then?

The popular sentiment is that Fox would be missing a studio analyst. Sean Payton would be quite a coup, as I’ve written more than once.

Look, no one should question the motives of an owner who hires a guy who’s won it all. But do you know how many current NFL head coaches have done that? Eight, including McCarthy. That leaves 24 teams with coaches who got the job without leaving their fingerprints on a Lombardi. Most of them look a lot alike.

According to the Post analysis, since the Raiders hired Art Shell in 1989, making him the first Black head coach of the NFL’s modern era, 192 men have served as head coaches. Twenty-five were Black. Of the latter group, two — Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin — have won Super Bowls. The rest weren’t as fortunate. Only nine got more than one shot as a head coach. Two were one-and-done after a single season.

Bottom line: Until head coaches start to look more like most of the players, critics will question the motives of owners, who, with the exception of Jacksonville’s Shad Khan, just so happen to be white. Appearances matter. Head coaches are the faces of NFL franchises. Does Roger Goodell really want the NFL to look like it’s going back in time? I’m old enough to remember when the NFL was criticized because there were no Black quarterbacks. Now all 32 teams have started at least one, and the game’s better because of it. The same would undoubtedly be true of Black head coaches, but it sure isn’t happening because of the Rooney Rule, a point Jerry concedes.

The only way the league can put its past behind it is if owners start gambling on Black coaches as willingly as they do on white ones. Only takes a few to start a trend. Jerry might do it all by himself next time he’s in the market.

Like a lot of us, he’s at a stage in his life when he speaks of regrets. He related one in the Post story. He recalled segregated buses in his youth and images of vacant seats up front while Black riders jammed the rear, many standing.

“I’ve often asked,” he said, “ ‘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?’ ”

The irony, Jerry, is that more than six decades later, it’s still not too late.

Twitter: @KSherringtonDMN

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

Cowboys Catch-Up

Cowboys

Be the smartest Cowboys fan. Get the latest news.

By signing up you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy