What Houston Texans Owner Bob McNair Gets Wrong About the NFL

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s comments ring like a last gasp from an executive who used to view his team—and its black players—with a prison mentality.


Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m 100 percent Texan, and an absolute Houstonian.

As I write this, I have on Houston Astros socks, jersey, long-sleeve shirt, and the Astros scarf and gloves nearby. When my Houston Rockets played the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, I had on more H-town gear than Spike Lee had on Knicks clothing. When ESPN said Dallas Carter high school was arguably the best football team in Texas history, I laughed. Anyone with a brain knows it was the 1985 Jack Yates Lions, my alma mater. And Texas A&M is far superior to that high school in Austin.

Oh, and I absolutely despise the Dallas Cowboys, and think Big D is more like little d compared to the nation’s fourth-largest city.

My point? I love my city and everything about it. The only reason my Twitter feed isn’t populated with Houston Texans comments is because I’m not supporting the NFL as long as Colin Kaepernick is unsigned. So when I read the ESPN inside account of the NFL owners meetings with the players over the issue of police brutality and on-field protests, I was immediately struck by the comment from Texans owner Bob McNair.

According to ESPN, as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder were discussing the impact of the protests on the NFL’s bottom line, McNair said: “"We can't have the inmates running the prison.”

The article says some in the room were aghast, and one of the NFL’s vice presidents—and former player—Troy Vincent, was beyond angry.

Per ESPN:  “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.’”

Later, McNair pulled Vincent aside and apologized, and said his words didn’t convey how he truly felt, “which Vincent appreciated,” wrote ESPN.

Once the comment became public, the Houston Texans and McNair quickly moved to contain the damage.

"I regret that I used that expression," McNair said. "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."

Bob McNair is a kind, decent, Christian man. I've met him on many occasions. His general manager, Rick Smith, is African American and is the godfather to McNair’s grandchild. But McNair also gave $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and is a staunch Republican. His politics align with the man who has stirred up the anthem controversy, so he doesn't get the same benefit of the doubt as some other NFL owners who are more sensitive to the players concerns, such as Jed York of the 49’ers and Jeff Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles .

When I read the piece—and before I got to the McNair apology—both thoughts raced through my head. On one hand, I understood what McNair was saying, but the reaction from Vincent hit me the same way.

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McNair’s comment is a familiar refrain folks often use. But when race comes into play that complicates things. See, it’s hard for a lot of white Americans to understand how Black folks feel because we know more about U.S. history than they do. White folks have gotten to experience an America where they have been the dominant race, so analogies are seen as no big deal and having no racial implications. But for African Americans, that’s not our history. So our sensitivity to the statement McNair made isn’t the same, especially in a league where 70 percent of the players are Black and 31 of 32 owners are white.

Furthermore, whites don’t necessarily understand hearing largely white men “owning” Black men. It was 398 years ago when 20 odd Africans arrived at Point Comfort, Va., and the nation went through 244 years of slavery, then another nearly 100 years of Jim Crow. We know that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, EXCEPT “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” We know that the peonage system, also called debt slavery, was outlawed in 1867, but was rampant in the South, and was done using inmates, nearly all Black. We know that white America has long viewed Black folks through the prism of being criminals.

Call me politically correct all you want, but Black folks just don’t see and hear things the same was as white folks.

This is also exhibited in this patriarchal comment from Jones, per ESPN: “Vincent and Jones had a sharp but quick back-and-forth, with Jones finally reminding the room that rather than league office vice presidents, it was he and fellow owners who had helped build the NFL's $15 billion-a-year business, and they would ultimately decide what to do.”

Fact: Jerry Jones has never played a down in the NFL. Troy Vincent played 14 years for the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins. Jones can boast all he wants about being a brilliant marketer, but if he had a crappy product, he would have nothing to sell. The skill level of the players is just as important as the marketing prowess of the owners, so to act as if they are irrelevant to the league’s success makes Jerry not even the brightest bulb in a dark room.

What the NFL owners are going to have to understand that their days of lording over their players has long gone. They have enjoyed a suppliant workforce, cast aside at will all under the guise of “it’s just business.”

But this is not the fall-in-line generation. Today’s NFL player is seeing that although the owners have the power, they have leverage and influence. And hard line owners who wear their patriotism on their sleeves like Jones, Snyder and Carolina Panthers owner and former NFL player Jerry Richardson better come to grips with the reality that when a man wants freedom, he won’t take no for an answer.

Roland S. Martin is host and managing editor of TV One Cable Network's daily morning Show, NewsOneNow; senior analyst for the Tom Joyner Morning Show; and curator of AllThat.tv.