Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN pulled back the curtain and provided an in-depth look at the recent NFL meetings between owners and players to discuss protests during the national anthem. The most eye-raising quote in the article came from Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who reportedly derailed a discussion when he told other NFL owners that they “can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
The comment came during a meeting that didn’t include current players. But McNair’s words reportedly offended NFL executive and former player Troy Vincent. Via ESPN.com:
After the owners finished, Troy Vincent stood up. He was offended by McNair's characterization of the players as "inmates." Vincent said that in all his years of playing in the NFL -- during which, he said, he had been called every name in the book, including the N-word -- he never felt like an "inmate."
That sparked a back-and-forth with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones who said NFL owners are historically responsible for the success of the NFL. However, McNair later pulled Vincent aside to apologize for the comment and then released a statement Friday after his words were made public in ESPN’s report.
Statement from Texans Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert C. McNair: pic.twitter.com/EXdwKZ4y4x— Texans PR (@TexansPR) October 27, 2017
He released a second statement Saturday after meeting with Texans players:
Statement from Texans Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert C. McNair: pic.twitter.com/YqkfnbjeSp— Texans PR (@TexansPR) October 28, 2017
The expression of “inmates running the prison” or asylum is used to describe leadership surrendering power to those being led. But the optics of owners essentially describing themselves as prison wardens aren’t great, particularly because police brutality and systematic oppression are at the heart of the player protests.
McNair suggested Saturday that his expression was used to describe the NFL league office as the “inmates,” but that falls flat when we already know the context of the conversation that led to its use:
As Jones spoke, Snyder mumbled out loud, "See, Jones gets it -- 96 percent of Americans are for guys standing," a claim some dismissed as a grand overstatement. McNair, a multimillion-dollar Trump campaign contributor, spoke next, echoing many of the same business concerns. "We can't have the inmates running the prison," McNair said.
Despite McNair’s claims that the expression wasn’t used to describe players, it’s hard to read the context any other way.
And even if McNair apologized, the comment only serves to validate what many already perceive the thoughts and beliefs of NFL owners to be. That includes Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, 49ers safety/linebacker Eric Reid, and other players who commented about McNair:
I can appreciate ppl being candid. Don’t apologize! You meant what you said. Showing true colors allows ppl to see you for who you are.— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) October 27, 2017
Nahhh Bob McNair didn’t say that...nah y’all tripping. He couldn’t have. Nope he didn’t. Did that wake some of y’all up now?— Damon Harrison (@BigDame900) October 27, 2017
People sayin’ how they really feel— Bobby Wagner (@Bwagz54) October 27, 2017
Athletes in other sports spoke out, too. NBA forward Draymond Green called what McNair said “unacceptable.”
The comments also had a ripple effect in Houston with players on the Texans so offended that they considered walking out of practice Friday. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins did skip the practice.
While many of the owners thought the meetings were a strong effort to move forward, some players weren’t as impressed.
Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung described the meetings as "unproductive at best and disingenuous at worst."
That’s not surprising after the ESPN article characterized most of the owners’ concerns as squarely on business, ratings, and sponsorships, and seemed to show the group as dismissive of the concerns of racial inequality that prompted protests in the first place. Leading the way was Jones, who has pushed for a leaguewide mandate to stand during the national anthem like the one he declared for Cowboys players:
He said the owners had to take the business impact seriously, as the league was threatened by a polarizing issue it couldn't contain or control. To some in the room, it was clear Jones was trying to build momentum for an anthem mandate resolution, and in the words of one owner, "he brought up a lot of fair points." Jones believed he was one of the few showing any urgency on the matter and seemed to be more frustrated that not everybody was listening than he was passionate about the mandate.
It also didn’t help that others’ attempts to listen to players’ concerns were awkward and/or tone deaf. Bills owner Terry Pegula complimented Anquan Boldin for his message about police brutality, but called the receiver “Antwan.” He also said the NFL could use a spokesperson like Boldin on social issues because it couldn’t be "white owner but needs to be someone who's black."
Not all owners were unsympathetic. 49ers owner Jed York and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie have been supportive of players’ right to kneel, and only nine owners were in favor of a mandate. Commissioner Roger Goodell was also in the corner of players and surprisingly opposed Jones for much of the meetings, creating an interesting stage for a future power struggle.
Next week, the owners will again meet with players and this time it’s expected to include former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — the player at the core of the protests during the national anthem. It’s a chance for owners and players to take a step forward, but the ESPN article further illuminates that the gulf between the two sides isn’t close to being bridged.