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Bob McNair's Comments Show the Fragility of Relations Between NFL Players and Owners

All progress made between NFL owners and players was erased by a single comment—and even if it was a cliche used incorrectly, it will be hard to regain momentum.

Doesn’t matter if it was said in private or misconstrued, there are things NFL owners can’t touch. And most of them won’t need this memo—any parallel between their workforce and prisoners is one.

It’s been 10 days now since a small group of players met with 11 NFL owners in New York City and, as we reported back then, the general tenor coming out of the summit was that there was cautious optimism that progress had been made on what remained a very fragile and sensitive situation.

On Friday, that optimism seemed to go out the window, and we saw just how fragile and sensitive this situation is.

Early that morning ESPN posted a story by Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham on the aforementioned meetings. It was a balanced, detailed and rich piece, reflecting the progress made, as well as the divide in attitude among various factions of owners. One anecdote, however, stood out, and created an immediate firestorm.

“We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” Texans owner Bob McNair said, according to the reporting of Van Natta and Wickersham (we’ve independently confirmed it), during a debate over the impact the player protests were having on NFL and team business. Later on Friday morning, McNair released a statement apologizing for using the expression.

In the statement, McNair said, “I never meant to offend anyone, and I was not referring to our players.” Sources said McNair displayed some anger over the league office’s handling of the matter in the meeting, in addition to making the comments he did about the players.

McNair clearly messed up a cliché. Still, it’s not like his sentiments don’t reflect the longstanding ethos of NFL owners. Ex-Cowboys president Tex Schramm once said to union chief Gene Upshaw, “You guys are cattle and we’re the ranchers, and ranchers can always get more cattle.” I’ve heard one owner is fond of using the acronym “LRC” to remind his employees who’s in charge.

LRC—Lower Righthand Corner. As in is where a check is signed.

How big of a problem was it in the meeting room? As one source explained it, “there was no uproar.” NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent took issue with it later in the meeting, and McNair apologized to him afterwards, and that was that. 

In any event, the damage clearly was done. Comparing pro football players to inmates raises a number of terrible stereotypes. The players weren’t pleased, to say the least, and you can understand why, given the way some corners of the public characterize them.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien, assistant head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Rick Smith led an emotional meeting with Houston players that lasted more than an hour. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins wasn’t there, having left the facility. He missed practice and was given what O’Brien called a “personal day”. Later in the locker room, tackle Duane Brown told reporters that McNair’s comments “sickened me. … I’m very upset.”

Players and owners are scheduled to meet again on Halloween in New York. Trust between the sides was at an all-time low coming into this season—union executive director DeMaurice Smith, in a sit-down meeting with us in August, called a 2021 work stoppage a “virtual certainty”—and it’s been on a downward slope for six years. It’s easy to ask, now, if it’ll be possible to recapture momentum gained on October 13.