Next month, Jerry Jones will become the 307th member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and once they got him on the phone line Thursday afternoon for his official Hall conference call, they got the pure football stuff out of the way first. After purchasing the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, the moderator of the call said, Jones became "the first owner to win three Super Bowls in his first seven years of ownership," which made it sound as if Jones had a whole lot more to do with those championships than Jimmy Johnson, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin did. But again, that was just the football stuff, and they dispensed with it soon enough.
"His leadership in areas of sports marketing and promotion," the moderator said in introducing Jones, "have not only impacted the Cowboys but have influenced the landscape of the entire National Football League and American sports culture."
Now we were getting somewhere. Now we were getting down to what really mattered in pro football. If it seemed strange and premature for Jones to be inducted into the Hall —he isn't going anywhere, and the Cowboys have reached the playoffs just nine times since last winning the Super Bowl 21 years ago — his inclusion in this year's class was now perfectly understandable. The disdain, the abject loathing, that many Eagles fans surely feel for having a column about Jerry Jones inflicted upon them in a Philadelphia newspaper and on a Philadelphia-based website goes a long way to explaining it.
The NFL is the Goliath of American sports. It is more than a league. It is more than part of our lives. It has become, for millions of us, the great connector. It stole Sunday mornings from Jesus. It stole Sunday nights from 60 Minutes. It stole chunks of the rest of our weeks, through talk radio and fantasy football and 24-hour sports-news channels, from our jobs and our families and whatever free time we once had. Jones not only recognizes this, but he also helped to make it happen. When asked about his greatest point of pride as Cowboys owner, he didn't mention the three Super Bowls, the franchise's winning tradition, or even the team's 13-3 record last season with rookie Dak Prescott at quarterback. He said this: "The interest that our game enjoys. The depth of interest never, ever ceases to exceed my expectation. I'm proud that we have always and, as far as I know, will, we want our game being able to be viewed by a vast audience."
Jones makes no apologies, it seems, for using the Cowboys toward that end. They were a moribund franchise when he bought them — 3-13 in 1988, the Tom Landry era ending — and if Johnson was most responsible for building the Dallas dynasty of the early 1990s, Jones' genius has been his absolute refusal to allow the Cowboys to grow stale and irrelevant since, no matter the controversy, no matter the cost. They became "America's Team" in the 1970s — a designation created by the league's own myth-making machine, NFL Films — and Jones has made sure they have remained America's Team, with all the attendant and fitting excess.
Hire Bill Parcells as head coach? Sure. Sign Terrell Owens? Of course. Sign Terrell Owens while Bill Parcells is the head coach? Why not? Construct the most opulent stadium in the league? Hell yes. Greg Hardy and his history of off-field violence? We'll take the heat. Ezekiel Elliott and his latest episode of questionable behavior? Get that fixer on the phone, lift up the nearest rug, and let's prepare to start sweeping. On Thursday afternoon, not an hour before Jones' conference call, former Cowboys offensive lineman Cory Procter tweeted, "OJ released! Cowboys cmon!" Nobody raised an eyebrow. Everyone knew what he meant. There was too much history, too much truth in the post, to miss Procter's point.
Every good narrative needs conflict, needs heroes and villains, and Jones is happy to have his football team be the source of that conflict, be the boldest hero and the most hated villain at the very same time. You think nobody dislikes the Cowboys more than Eagles fans do? Sorry. There's a line out the door full of folks in Redskins jerseys and Giants hats and 49ers gear, and the crazies in Kelly green just might be at the back of it. There's a reason that Cowboys games are fixtures in the NFL's prime-time TV slots. (One example: Of the Eagles' last four games at AT&T Stadium, three have been on NBC's Sunday Night Football, and one was on Thanksgiving.) There's a reason that, when it's time for couch-plopped football fans to get their mid-morning manufactured-screamfest fix, they can choose between Cowboys devotee Skip Bayless on one sports network and Cowboys antagonist Stephen A. Smith on another. There's a reason that, on Thursday, Jones referenced a meeting he had years ago with longtime TV executive Dan Burke as a clarifying moment for his ownership philosophy.
"He said you could hire every producer there is in Hollywood and couldn't come up with all the soap operas that go on on and off the field that had to do with pro football," Jones said. "He said it's the greatest television that you could ever dream of. We didn't know the term reality programming then, but we're sure aware of it right now. I think that all was certainly a big help in my decision."