"We can't have the inmates running the prison," McNair reportedly said of protesting players.
At a recent meeting of NFL owners and league executives regarding player protests, Texans owner Robert McNair warned his fellow owners that the league should avoid having "inmates running the prison," ESPN's Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. report.
McNair made the comment as he urged the room to consider the effect of protests on the league's business, according to ESPN's in-depth examination of how owners have responded in recent weeks to protests.
"We can't have the inmates running the prison," McNair reportedly said, referring to NFL players.
The meeting took place last week in New York, one day after a small group of owners met with a handful of players about ongoing protests during the national anthem.
NFL executive Troy Vincent, a former player, later stood up and said he was offended by McNair's comment, according to ESPN.
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."
McNair subsequently apologized to Vincent and told him he didn't mean for his words to be taken literally, ESPN reports.
The Texans released a statement from McNair on Friday apologizing for his comment.
"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," McNair said. "I would never characterize our players or our league that way and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it."
NFL owners and executives have been scrambling to determine the best response to players protesting during the national anthem this season, a movement started last year by Colin Kaepernick to demonstrate against racial injustice and police brutality. Other players joined him, but the protests grew this season in response to President Donald Trump's public characterization of protesting players as a "son of a b----."