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Let’s Break It Down | How Can Public Figures Handle Past Transgressions?

Evelyn Carter, PhD
| President
Evelyn is a social psychologist and DEI expert focused on evolving and advancing the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


When he was 14 years old, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stole a Snickers bar from 7-11 every day on his way to the gym. Decades later, he addressed the stealing and chronicled his journey toward atonement for the petty thefts in a video posted to Instagram. Instead of brushing aside his behavior as “teens being teens,” The Rock gave an honest account of his actions and the impact they had on him and others, and attempted to repair the harm he had done.

All Leaders Respond Differently to Past Mistakes

Not all adults who are confronted with errors from their teenage years respond in the same way. For instance, a picture recently surfaced of a 14-year old Jerry Jones — the Owner, President, and GM of the Dallas Cowboys — standing in a crowd outside the newly-integrated North Little Rock High School in 1957.

As was the case with many desegregation efforts, the crowd was full of White folks who were hostile to the six Black teens attempting to enter the school. Jerry Jones was an onlooker at the edge of the picture, and when asked about it, he replied that he was merely curious, sticking his nose in the “right place at the wrong time” and that “nobody” knew what was going to take place.

In stark contrast to The Rock’s response to a mistake he made as a kid, Jones effectively excused himself by saying, “teens will be (curious) teens.”


Some, like Stephen A. Smith, defended Jones saying that it was “pretty low” to connect Jones’ track record of never hiring a Black coach to the picture. However, many others have reminded us that the past wasn’t that long ago. Indeed, many of the Black students who desegregated schools nationwide are still very much alive to provide firsthand accounts of their experiences. Perhaps it’s not so far-fetched to draw connections between Jones’ past actions and his current behavior after all.

How to Grow From Failure

I’ve written before about how to recover in the face of DEI blunders, and there’s lots of research on how a growth mindset about bias transforms how people give and respond to feedback about biased behavior. Therefore, I stand by the belief that people’s attitudes and behaviors can change.

Perhaps Jerry Jones was a curious kid in 1957, but just because he wasn’t actively doing harm doesn’t mean that his presence was inconsequential. We know too much about the lasting impact of racism on our society and how violent desegregation efforts often turned. Maybe Jones wasn’t launching slurs or hurling objects at Black students just trying to get an education, but was he doing the work to interrupt bias among his White classmates? I’m not so sure.

Many people whisper to me that they worry about being called out for mistakes of their past. This fear can be overwhelming, keeping folks from championing DEI to avoid being called a hypocrite. But, if we take seriously that we all have skeletons from our past, we must find a way to address those head-on, not hide from them. Interestingly, I think The Rock’s Instagram video provides a bit of a playbook for how Jerry Jones (and other adults in similar situations) can openly and honestly address the demons of their past. As such, here are four points I’d like to call out that The Rock’s response helps illustrate.

Be Honest About the Situation and Your Role In It

The Rock’s video starts off, “I have been waiting decades to do what I’m doing now,” and he goes on to explain his recurring theft. He kept it short and to the point and he did not deflect by trying to excuse his behavior. In the caption, he does offer a reason — his family often struggled financially and he was hungry — but he doesn’t do so to absolve guilt.

Acknowledge the Impact Your Behavior Had

Any apology needs to acknowledge that some harm was done. (For the record, if The Rock were asking me for coaching — he didn’t — I might tell him that this is an area where he could have improved a bit.) In the case of the stolen Snickers, it could be that the clerk on staff when the candy bars were stolen had pay docked because of the missed inventory. In the case of a hostile crowd, the harm may be psychological, or even physical. Speaking about the impact lets all involved know that you have processed the actions you took and that you have done the work to reflect on the potential ripple effects of those actions. 

Provide a Solution that Reflects the Magnitude Of Your Impact

The cost of a Snickers bar in 1987 was around 40 cents, so stealing one each day amounted to about $146 ($368 in 2022 after accounting for inflation). Arguably, The Rock’s purchases and tips to employees met or exceeded this amount: mission accomplished.

However, in other instances, the solution may not be as simple — not all harm done can be fixed with a few hundred dollars. It may take months of conversations, re-education, financial contributions, and structural changes.

It would probably be disingenuous for Jerry Jones to respond to the photo by committing to hire a Black coach for the Cowboys, but it would be interesting to see him introspect about what connections may exist between his upbringing and his current actions. Over time, that introspection very well could lead to lasting change, in Jones, and in the organization he leads.

Don’t Expect Absolution From Those You Harmed

The Rock’s video charmed many, including the social team behind the 7-11 chain, who commented that they were happy to finally unlock the secret behind his muscular physique. But not everyone who apologizes will receive such grace, nor should they expect to.

When we do harm to others, we may never have full awareness of the impact of our actions on their life trajectories. Sometimes, our attempts at reparations may fall short — nothing can replace time, opportunities, or lives lost. However, the point of apologizing is not to absolve yourself of guilt and return to business as usual. It’s to commit to behaving differently and to have others help hold you accountable for that commitment.

Practicing Humility and Apology Fosters a Healthy Community

As our society evolves and we learn, it makes sense that many of us, myself included, will have moments surface from our past that we’re not proud of. And I truly believe that anyone is capable of change. So, the next time someone reminds you of an action your past self took, instead of deflecting, own it honestly and authentically. Your actions may inspire others to do the same and create a ripple effect of good.

December 1, 2022

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