By Jeffrey Boney, Houston Forward Times Associate Editor and NNPA Member
Black players in the National Football League have been described as ungrateful, thugs, sons of b***hes and inmates by talking heads on sports radio, the commander-in-chief and most recently at least one NFL owner.
Some current and former NFL players, including the exiled Colin Kaepernick, have decided to use their high-profile platforms to protest racism, systematic oppression and police brutality in this country and some people, including the President of the United States, just can’t handle it.
Following Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s controversial analogy, describing NFL players as ‘inmates,’ a number of Houston Texans football players completely rejected, both his written and face-to-face apologies.
McNair, who is now being described by many in the community as ‘Warden McNair,’ created a major controversy within the league, as well as across the country, after it was revealed in a story released by ESPN the Magazine’s Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr., that McNair had made the shocking ‘inmate’ reference several weeks ago in a meeting with 10 other NFL owners and 13 current players. It was during that same meeting, where other NFL owners had expressed their view and thoughts about the business concerns surrounding the anthem protests, that McNair boldly said:
“We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
It was only after the owners finished sharing their thoughts on the issue that former NFL player and current NFL executive Troy Vincent stood up and adamantly expressed how offended he was by McNair’s character assassination of and reference to NFL players as ‘inmates.’
According to Wickersham and Van Natta, Vincent told McNair and the other owners that in all his years of playing football in the NFL, he had “been called every name in the book, including the n-word, but never felt like an ‘inmate.’” It was also reported that McNair later pulled Vincent aside to apologize and tried to explain to him that he didn’t mean what he said in a literal sense, but the damage had already been done.
The Texans, who were only a few days away from playing a road game against the Seattle Seahawks at the time the ‘inmate’ reference was reported, found themselves in crisis mode as an organization, as many Texans players planned to walk out of practice that Friday. Texans head Coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith quickly convened a team meeting to talk the players out of leaving practice. The meeting was somewhat effective, as nearly everyone chose to stay, with the exception of a few Texans players, such as franchise wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and rookie running back D’Onta Freeman, who still refused to practice and chose to leave in protest.
To drive the point home even further, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman expressed his views about McNair’s comments prior to his matchup with the Texans, saying via Twitter:
“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…I wish more ppl would do that. So the world could ostracize those who don’t want to see EQUALITY. Otherwise they will continue to hide.”
In an attempt to protect his brand, and try and quiet the issue, McNair quickly issued what many have considered a watered-down apology via a written statement from the Texans’ PR department on Friday, saying:
“I regret that I used that expression. I never meant to offend anyone and I was not referring to our players. I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally. I would never characterize our players or our league that way and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it.”
Many NFL players weren’t buying McNair’s initial apology, so he issued a second, more explanatory apology via written statement through the Texans’ PR department, stating:
“As I said yesterday, I was not referring to our players when I made a very regretful comment during the owners meetings last week. I was referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years. I am truly sorry to the players for how this has impacted them and the perception that it has created of me which could not be further from the truth. Our focus going forward, personally and as an organization, will be towards making meaningful progress regarding the social issues that mean so much to our players and our community.”
McNair’s apology, whether genuine or not, is not the issue that should be focused on during these challenging times in this country, and neither should his disparaging word choice to describe the many NFL players and athletes who have chosen to exercise their First Amendment right to protest and use their high-profile platform to do so. McNair and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones are front and center using their ‘warden-like’ approach to treat NFL players like inmates in prison.
In late October, Duane Brown, one of the best left tackles (or ‘inmates’ in the game), was traded from the Texans to the Seahawks, after he reported that McNair had made several racially-insensitive comments prior to his ‘inmates’ reference. Brown, who had just ended his six-game holdout, said that after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, McNair told Texans players that he wasn’t excited about it and expressed that since he started protesting during the national anthem since last season, McNair had not had anything to say to him. It is no surprise he was traded away (or transferred to a different prison unit).
Based on the explosive comments made by McNair at the NFL meetings several weeks ago, coupled with his failure to address the key issues surrounding the true nature and purpose of the original protests led by Kaepernick, it is strongly believed by many in the community that McNair may be completely disinterested in actually addressing the issues of racism, systematic oppression and police brutality in this country.
During a community forum held at The Community of Faith Church, the Houston chapter of the NAACP, along with many other community leaders, pastors and elected officials, convened a meeting to condemn the ‘inmate’ statement made by McNair, as well as discuss the oppression taking place across America and a path forward.
A group of community leaders that included NAACP President Dr. James Douglas; NAACP National Board Member Howard Jefferson; NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (who both called in by telephone); Congressman Al Green; Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis; State Rep. Ron Reynolds; and Pastor E.A. Deckard demanded that the Houston Sports Authority rescind a vote to erect a statue at NRG Stadium in honor of McNair.
One of the oddest appearances at the forum took place when City Councilman Jack Christie was asked if he wished to deliver any remarks, and after accepting the invitation to speak, announced to the audience that he wanted to deliver some prepared remarks from a statement that he had written prior to the event. Christie began his remarks by emphasizing that he did not personally know McNair and that McNair did not personally know him, but that he felt he could speak to McNair’s character, because he had done his research on McNair and found him to be a man of character and goodwill. After invoking Dr. King’s quote to describe how the community should look at McNair’s character versus his uttered words, Christie also attempted to justify McNair’s ‘inmate’ statement by alleging that McNair may have ‘misspoke’ as a result of chemotherapy treatments and mind-altering drugs. Christie also offered to serve as an intermediary between the community and McNair—the person he claims to not know at all—by having the community provide McNair with the list of things the community leaders are requesting from him to make this go away.
Christie’s odd appearance only raised more questions.
If Christie doesn’t know McNair, then how can he propose to speak about his character and the intent of his heart? Does Christie’s appearance at a predominately African American community forum on oppression mean he is prepared to actually talk about and address racism, systematic oppression and police brutality in this country? Some residents even wondered if McNair sent Christie to the event to deliver those prepared remarks.
Listen. It is completely understandable that many people have gotten bruised egos and hurt feelings, because of the racially-insensitive remarks by McNair, but his comments should not be the focus. The original reason that Colin Kaepernick took a knee in the first place, should be the primary focus for everyone. McNair, the Texans’ organization and the entire NFL, must deal with the issues that have been brought up by Kaepernick, as well as the issues brought up at the community forum, such as bail reform. And don’t stop with the NFL. These conversations should be had with all of the other professional sports team owners across the country and corporate CEOs.
Based on the treatment Kaepernick has received for his stance, as well as the comments made by McNair and other NFL owners, it truly seems as if they really and truly believe they ‘own’ these players, versus simply employing them, and are doing everything they can to dissuade the players from speaking their minds or having independent thoughts outside of doing what they are told and being good ‘inmates.’
The Forward Times will continue to follow the fallout from McNair’s ‘inmate’ statement and will be watching to see if select community leaders will attempt to give McNair a pass in exchange for a few crumbs from the table, as so often happens in the African American community.