If you’re wondering why, in professional football, so few Black coaches get hired and Black players struggle to be heard, you can learn a lot from a 65-year-old image of Jerry Jones. In a 1957 photo published late last month by The Washington Post, the future owner of the Dallas Cowboys, then 14, stood among a group of white teenagers who were blocking six Black students from desegregating his Arkansas high school.
In an interview with the Post, Jones minimized his role in the event. “I don’t know that I or anybody anticipated or had a background of knowing … what was involved. It was more a curious thing,” Jones told the newspaper, which has published a series of stories about the NFL’s failure to promote Black coaches over the course of decades.
Jones was a sophomore at North Little Rock High when the photo was taken. You could argue that Jones only was a kid. But as an adult, he hasn’t adequately reflected on what his presence in a crowd of hostile white teens would have meant to Black students, and he hasn’t fundamentally disavowed the narrow, bigoted attitudes that once surrounded him and are still a force in football today.
Jones isn’t just any NFL owner. He may be the most powerful owner in the NFL. The Post’s David Maraniss and Sally Jenkins wrote that Jones is “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.”
The racial hierarchy of the NFL is glaring. The majority of NFL players are Black, but owners and head coaches disproportionately are conservative white men. Every now and then—such as after the murder of George Floyd in 2020—the league makes performative statements about racial healing. But outside the public spotlight, the NFL and prominent figures in it have been caught showing bigotry in a variety of forms, including using race-norming to determine concussion settlements and making racist, sexist, and homophobic comments over email.
The old photo of Jones is jarring in part because it confirms what so many Black players and coaches find so unsettling about the NFL. They are navigating a league permeated with both hidden and overt racism, along with other forms of discrimination, and they naturally wonder if the equity they seek will ever be truly prioritized.
Jones could not remotely have been oblivious to the racial tension surrounding desegregation in 1957. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Around the time Jones and his schoolmates were making Black students feel unwelcome, then-Governor Orval Faubus summoned the Arkansas National Guard to block nine Black students from entering nearby Little Rock Central High School. That group eventually needed federal intervention to attend the school.