LEBRON IS RIGHT: MEDIA ARE GIVING JERRY JONES A PASS ON HIS RACISM
From network TV executives to sports opinion-makers, the industry fears the owner’s influence, giving credence to James’ view of a double standard when juxtaposed against Kyrie Irving’s antisemitism
Is Jerry Jones a racist pig? If it’s fair to ask if Kyrie Irving is antisemitic, then, yes, enough evidence is in the prejudice portal to ask the same about the 80-year-old captain of sports industry. In his 34 years as owner of what is now the world’s most valuable franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, Jones has yet to hire a full-time Black head coach, an indefensible record that comes five years after he warned Black players not to kneel during the national anthem amid Colin Kaepernick’s protest movement.
“If there is anything disrespecting the flag, then we will not play. Period. We’re going to respect the flag and I’m going to create the perception of it,” Jones said then. “We know there is a serious debate in this country about those issues, but there is no question in my mind, that the (NFL) and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag.”
His edict came two weeks after Donald Trump, in a less-than-presidential threat to the league’s owners, harrumphed during a speech: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ … You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it, but they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Entrenched in Trump’s world, with a drawl honed in his Arkansas youth and sharpened as a Texas oil and football baron, Jones embodies the profile of what America’s woke sectors reject in the third decade of the 21st century: an aged, powerful, White multi-billionaire. It was only a matter of time before he was called out by an influential Black voice after the Washington Post published a photograph of Jones, from 1957, watching intently behind a mob of White students trying to block six Black students from entering doors at North Little Rock High School — a horrific moment when integration clashed with discrimination.
Then 14, he wasn’t among the aggressors in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional. But he was among the White teenagers lodged between the Black students and the school doors — an eyewitness to a cigarette-puffing thug appearing ready to throw a punch and a smiling, mocking greaser behind him. In his only direct explanation before last week, Jones chuckled it off a dozen years ago as an innocent stumble upon an unexpected scene: “You couldn’t have gotten caught bein’ where you weren’t supposed to be more than that right there. The people that were bein’ that way, that literally, physically, with all that gesturin’, with all that, weren’t even students at all.”
Examining the photo in recent days, as it circulated globally, LeBron James wasn’t chuckling. He had every reason to wonder what some of us were thinking: Why did the American media downplay the Jones story while spending almost a month on Irving’s drama — his social media support of a documentary driven by anti-Jewish tropes? Irving was forced to apologize multiple times, a response to pressure from the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets, mainstream media and social media. Jones was asked about the photo once, responding the other day, “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. I am. That would remind me (to) just continue to do everything we can to not have those kinds of things happen.”
The story will not die there, nor should it, because James wants the same level of media accountability for Jones that was demanded from Irving, who since has returned to the Nets after an eight-game suspension. Rarely does James enter a press conference with a pre-determined, non-basketball agenda. He did Wednesday night, after the struggling Lakers beat Portland in Los Angeles.
“I got one question for you guys before you guys leave. I was thinking when I was on my way over here, I was wondering why I haven't gotten a question from you guys about the Jerry Jones photo," James told reporters. "But when the Kyrie thing was going on, you guys were quick to ask us questions about that. … When I watch Kyrie talk and he says, 'I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we're talking about my people and the things that we've been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, as someone with power and a platform, when we do something wrong, or something that people don't agree with, it's on every single tabloid, every single news coverage, it's on the bottom ticker. It's asked about every single day.
“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, photo — and I know it was years and years ago and we all make mistakes, I get it — but it seems like it's just been buried under, like, ‘Oh, it happened. OK, we just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven't received that question from you guys.”
He’s right. Absolutely right about Jones and selective clemency — and we always haven’t been able to say that when James turns to activism.
But the answer he wants may not be as much about overt racism as it is about clout. Jerry Jones is the most powerful man in the most prominent, prosperous and popular sports league in American history. He is worth $16 billion and has the instant speed-dialing ears of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Fox boss Lachlan Murdoch and the reappearing Disney czar, Bob Iger. Why didn’t the local and national media badger Jones about the photo? Why did ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who would rip a loved one to attain bigger ratings, go easy on Jones and dismiss the photo as something from “65 years ago” from someone who didn’t “deserve” to be skewered? Why weren’t local and national columnists, or what is left of the waning species, hellbent on rebuking him?
The media are scared of Jerry Jones, that’s why. They know he’ll make his critics pay — with a phone call to a corporate boss, a permanent smear in the league pipeline — and cause them to think twice before dreaming of roasting him. I recently emailed Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw, my former fellow panelist on ESPN’s “Around The Horn,” and dared him to take down Jones. He never responded, nor has he challenged Jones since the photo went viral. He did write a rah-rah piece titled, “What the Cowboys need to do to make Jerry Jones’ Super Bowl talk reality.” Sports columnists, you see, prefer to cover their asses and protect paychecks than hold truth to power.
In the NFL, you don’t cross Jones, Goodell or New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft without professional repercussions. Stephen A. would rather keep a working relationship with Jones, who gave Smith a summer helicopter ride to the team facility, than confront him about racism as a Black show host. Smith doesn’t avoid vilifying others guilty of racial indiscretions, but he won’t dare risk joining Jones’ hit list.
He’d rather incur the wrath of a network colleague, NBA play-by-play caller Mark Jones, who is Black and liked a tweet that referred to Smith as a “c---” for defending Jones. Smith turned to his podcast, naturally, and said, “One can only be called a sellout and a c— and all of this other stuff so much before you feel compelled to respond. Particularly when you’re a Black man. It’s Black on Black. I don’t even know if White folks need to be listening with the stuff that I’m gonna say about some of us.”
Rambling on, Stephen A. added, “You want to criticize me and what my positions are, I’m good with that. Y’all tell me why. If you’re right, I’ll say so. You know how hard it is for me to listen to people that have worked in this industry for years with the stuff I know about them, listening to them and their drivel talking nonsense about me? They ain’t do a damn thing to help our community! I put my career on the line everyday fighting for us. And we’re gonna go out like that? Because I don’t agree with y’all position on a still photo from 66 years ago. Really? We better wake up y’all.”
Let’s hope Smith still wakes up every morning. He has made enemies for life in the Black community, defending a White mogul not for sincere reasons but because Jones can help Smith’s career and say nice things about him to his ESPN bosses. Stephen A. needs Jerry more than his own credibility. He’s a phony who gladly will pound an athlete or coach but NEVER would touch a potent force in national media circles. It’s all about what’s best for Stephen A., never about sensible and responsible commentary. He accurately points out that Jones’ top player personnel executive (Will McClay) is Black and that he has employed two Black coordinators and several Black assistant coaches, but progress was slow to come. His last three head-coaching appointments, as the league has encouraged minority hires via the Rooney Rule, involved three White veterans of middling quality: Mike McCarthy, Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips.
I have first-hand experience in Jerry’s World. In 2017, when the Super Bowl was in Houston, I was meeting up with a media friend at the Four Seasons hotel after a party. Arriving first, I walked into the lobby bar, not realizing the public setting had been commandeered by Jones and his son, Stephen, who were socializing with several Fox Sports people. Immediately, a security officer approached me before Jones’ longtime media lieutenant, Rich Dalrymple — since retired after being accused by four Cowboys cheerleaders of peek-a-boo activity while they were undressing — called off the hounds. I finished my drink, but not without a roomful of laser eyeballs searing me.
Even Black players on the Dallas roster are reluctant to question Jones. Star quarterback Dak Prescott was asked Thursday about LeBron’s rant, but he sided with his $40 million salary. “Obviously we can be more empathetic and give grace to one another, regardless of race, from the times we’ve come from to where we are now, thinking about the growth we’ve had,” he said. “That’s who I am, how I think, optimistic — I mean, a guy who is completely biracial, Black and White, it’s easy for me to speak on race on one side or another. I don’t know if I’ve fully processed it all the way, honestly. I think whether LeBron’s talking to the picture, that’s on Jerry to address. In the same sense, it’s 65 years ago and how times have changed. I mean, look at the man’s resume since then, right? As I said, I give grace. I think that’s a conversation and question not only for him but for you guys and how y’all feel and how accountable y’all have been in covering and discussing the disparities and differences.”
There certainly were plenty of harsh words for Irving, some from James after his Nov. 5 suspension. “Me personally, I don't condone any hate to any kind. To any race. To Jewish communities, to Black communities, to Asian communities. You guys know where I stand," LeBron said at the time. “I believe what Kyrie did caused some harm to a lot of people. And he has since … apologized. But he caused some harm, and I think it's unfortunate.”
Jones caused harm, too. Throughout 2022, he has been revealed as a creepy old man. He reportedly paid almost $3 million to a 25-year-old woman who says Jones is her biological father, with gifts including full tuition at Southern Methodist University and a $70,000 Range Rover. In February, Jones acknowledged he paid $2.4 million to the cheerleaders to settle the voyeurism allegations against Dalrymple. Now, there’s the Little Rock photo that exposes his background and shines light on his refusal to hire a Black head coach.
Not once has Jones apologized for anything. Irving not only apologized, he had to meet six specific requirements before the Nets allowed him to return. The double standard, as posited by James, is as real as Kodachrome.
But Jerry Jones is a man of boundless might in a league owned and operated by White moguls. Irving is a Black employee, albeit problematic, who would have been run out of his league if he hadn’t expressed regrets. This should be a major story for the international media if the Cowboys, at long last, return to the Super Bowl in Arizona.
At best, it will be a sidebar. Fox won’t address it. ESPN might have one segment with an investigative reporter. Columnists won’t touch it. And if you want a private word from Jerry about it, you’ll just have to interrupt his party at the hotel bar and hope you aren’t tossed in jail.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.