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A photo from his past is haunting Jerry Jones’ present

Jerry Jones’ high school photo controversy and comments from LeBron James, explained

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones loves to engage with the media. Right now, he loves nothing more than talking about the success of his team, or speculating about the potential addition of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as the Cowboys look to a playoff run.

But a photo from his past is becoming a bigger part of the overall discussion.

Prior to Thanksgiving, The Washington Post ran a story from David Maraniss and Sally Jenkins regarding Jones’ influence on the league, and how he has “led the league toward new revenue models.”

The story also highlighted something else: Jones’ record of hirings and appointments while owner of the Cowboys. As noted throughout the story, Jones has yet to hire a black head coach.

And a moment that is used to frame the entire story, a moment from Jones’ high school days, is now coming under greater scrutiny in the wake of the story’s publication. On the first day of classes at North Little Rock High School in September of 1957, six Black students attempted to desegregate the school, but were met by a crowd of white students who blocked their path.

A photo was taken of the moment:

William P. Straeter/AP

Three rows deep, looking on, is a 15-year-old Jerry Jones.

Jones acknowledged his presence in the story from the Post:

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.

People are free to take Jones at his word, and highlight that he was a 15-year-old at the time of these events.

And others are free to view them in a much, much different light.

The authors of the story from the Post use that moment as a jumping-off point for an examination of Jones’ record of hiring, and illustrate that given his position within the league, and the elite group of NFL owners, Jones could do more to bring about change in a league that has been dreadfully slow to hire and promote black candidates.

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.”

The story also points out how Jones’ responses to questions about that moment years ago mirror his responses to questions about how he, and the NFL, handle hiring practices today: “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.”

The story, Jones’ comments, and his overall record while owner of the Cowboys — and as some have described him, the NFL’s “shadow commissioner” — have led some to raise questions about Jones and his hiring practices.

Someone pushing for a deeper examination?

LeBron James.

The NBA star grew up a Cowboys fan before breaking with the team in the wake of Jones’ response to protests from Colin Kaepernick. At that time, the owner stated that players who “disrespect the flag” would not play.

Wednesday night LeBron asked why that photo, and moment, was being “buried:”

From that video: “...that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America ... It seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation and photo, and I know it was years and years ago and we all make mistakes, I get it. But it seemed like it’s been buried under. It happened. We just move on. I was disappointed I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

LeBron is right, in that questions should be raised regarding this moment, rather than brushing it aside. Perhaps this can lead to a deeper discussion about our nation’s not-too-distant history, when segregation was part of our present, and opportunities were denied to Americans because of the color of their skin.

Opportunities that Jones, because of his position as the owner of one of the most recognizable sports franchises on the planet, and his place as the “shadow commissioner” of the NFL, is in a position to provide here in the present.

Everything in life, in history, is an opportunity for learning. Rather than brushing this aside and moving on, we can use this moment as an opportunity for learning, and for growth. Jones himself can contribute in that effort, by speaking openly and honestly about that day, about what he has learned since then, and about what we can do as a shared society to move together and grow beyond that history.

It starts with asking some tough questions, and listening to the responses.