Bob McNair shows that some owners have no idea where players are coming from
Texans owner used analogy about inmates and prisons in speaking with athletes fighting for criminal justice reform. Let that sink in.
Let’s give Houston Texans owner Bob McNair the benefit of the doubt that he’s truly remorseful for making the worst analogy in the history of analogies about NFL player protests during the national anthem. McNair quickly issued an apology Friday after my colleagues Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. revealed that McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” at a meeting of owners and players to discuss the most divisive issue facing the league.
McNair, weighing in on players who are overwhelmingly African-American using their platform to shine a light on racial injustice, chose his words poorly. But McNair’s tone-deaf comment was much more than merely a gaffe. To players in the room, it was yet another in-your-face reminder that some owners – no matter how many rap sessions NFL commissioner Roger Goodell leads between the sides in hopes of mollifying players and returning the focus to the games – simply don’t get where they’re coming from. And most likely never will.
Among all the issues for which players have risked their careers to illuminate since former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat and then kneeled last season during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” criminal justice reform is at the top of the list, in bold letters and underlined. It’s the foundation for everything the players hope to achieve in an effort to effect positive change in African-American communities. “We … need a huge push to look at the laws that lead to people going to jail in the first place,” Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas recently told The Undefeated. “Let’s work on getting legislation that addresses that.”
For McNair to actually have used an analogy about inmates and prisons in speaking with players who are fighting for changes in a system that has led to the disproportionate mass incarceration of African-American men, well, you can’t make this stuff up. For civil rights advocates who are working with NFL players, McNair said exactly what they believe most owners say among themselves.
McNair made it “clear that for the owners, who have tried to make this about the flag, who have tried to make this about the anthem and patriotism, this was always about how do they control black people and black people’s political voice,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a civil rights organization. “And how they absolutely see these players: as property.”
Not surprisingly, after word emerged about McNair’s comments, on Friday Texans players reportedly considered staging a walkout from practice. Explaining star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ absence, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said Hopkins had taken a “personal day.” Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown best expressed the mood of Texans players and, undoubtedly, players throughout the league, saying his employer’s comments “were disrespectful. I think it was ignorant. I think it was embarrassing. I think it angered a lot of players, including myself. We put our bodies and minds on the line every time we step on that field, and to use an analogy of inmates in prison, that’s disrespectful.”
Perhaps on a less racially charged topic than protests during the anthem, McNair could have used the analogy, which, in its most benign interpretation, means that workers should not be allowed to dictate to owners how businesses are run. Problem is, the NFL is 70 percent black. Players have been booed vociferously by fans and called traitors for protesting peacefully, attacked by President Donald Trump and threatened by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has signaled he would flout U.S. labor law, NFL rules and the Constitution to force players to stand for the anthem. Until owners and players reach consensus on how to move on from the demonstrations together, race is the underpinning of all their dealings.
At last week’s meeting, McNair wasn’t the only owner who stirred tension in the room, Wickersham and Van Natta Jr. reported. Buffalo Bills co-owner Terry Pegula repeatedly referred to recently retired Bills wide receiver Anquan Boldin, a leader among activist-players, as “Antwan.” And Pegula also suggested Boldin would be an ideal NFL spokesman on social issues because the league needs “someone who’s black.” At best, Pegula’s observation was racially insensitive. At worst, it could be construed that Pegula only cared about the optics of the situation – not actually helping the players address their serious concerns. As if the situation wasn’t already fraught with tension.
For Goodell, the good news was that none of the insults directed at players, regardless of the owners’ intentions, derailed the meeting. Players such as Boldin, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid were locked in on the bigger picture. They want owners to partner with them to help bridge the nation’s racial divide. Leaving the meeting early and angry, players surmised, wouldn’t get them any closer to achieving their goals.
It’s still unknown what owners will ultimately present to players in an effort to persuade them to stand en masse for the anthem, partly because players aren’t unified on the specifics of what they want. That’s definitely an issue, making it clear both sides still have much work to do. And as McNair showed, there’s still plenty of room for error.