Given time and enough publicity, the NFL’s team owners cultivate a reputation by which the general public knows them. Jerry Jones is the oil tycoon from Texas who’s always good for a soundbyte. Jim Irsay (and his punctuation) can get erratic on Twitter. Martha Firestone Ford, always wearing black sunglasses, rarely lends her voice to the public. Bob Kraft is never seen without a smile and fresh Air Force Ones.
And as of late Texans owner Bob McNair is turning himself into the owner always unintentionally involved in controversy. On no fewer than three occasions since 2015, McNair has found himself embroiled in unseemly situations, where he needed to walk back his words or actions. It’s an impressive clip for a team owner who recently held a lower profile among his NFL owner peers.
So how did McNair become the NFL owner launching himself into headline after headline? Let’s start from the beginning. McNair, 80, was born in Forest City, N.C., a small town just more than an hour west of Charlotte, to a middle-class family with two brothers. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1958 with a psychology degree and worked at a North Carolina auto leasing company for less than a year before moving to Houston, where he started his own executive car leasing company.
That company ultimately failed in the early 1980s, leaving McNair close to bankruptcy. He started Cogen Technologies Energy Group in the mid ’80s while taking advantage of deregulation of electrical power, and by the late ’90s, Cogen had become the country’s largest privately owned cogeneration company with its five power plants. Needless to say, McNair was flush.
“Many people say I was an overnight success, and I was, after 20 years of struggling,” McNair once told Houston Lifestyles & Homes.
McNair spent most of the ’90s trying to get into the exclusive club of NFL ownership. He dipped his toe in the water for the Miami Dolphins after Joe Robbie died in 1990, and he also poked his head in on a St. Louis expansion team in ’93 after the Cardinals left. By the late ’90s though, the NFL made clear that it intended to put the Browns back in Cleveland, and it needed an expansion team to make an even 32. McNair made it his mission to get Houston another NFL team after the Oilers packed up and became the Tennessee Titans after the ’96 season.
After Thanksgiving 1998, McNair sold three power plants in New Jersey to Enron for a total of $1.5 billion. The move gave Enron a huge northeast base as it looked to transmit power across the country, and it gave McNair the cash for his own NFL franchise. Los Angeles flubbed its chance at the expansion team, and the NFL awarded McNair his team in 1999 after he ponied up a record $700 million for the franchise.
The Texans took their first snap in the 2002 season, and Houston hosted Super Bowl XXXVIII 17 months later. McNair had successfully brought football back to Houston and earned the city its first Super Bowl in 30 years. You could make the argument that McNair was second only to George W. Bush in terms of popularity among Houstonians.
Over the next 13 years, McNair and his Texans rarely made noise, going to the playoffs just twice in that time. McNair tried to find his voice and place among the other owners while donating millions to various educational and philanthropic causes (along with several more millions to mostly conservative political causes).
McNair ran into trouble in 2015, though. That year, the city of Houston held a referendum to improve and expand its anti-discrimination coverage. Critics of the law objected to protections extended to gay and transgender residents, claiming that the law would allow men in women’s restrooms.
One of the most right-leaning owners in the league, McNair donated $10,000 to Campaign for Houston, a group in direct opposition of the ordinance whose tagline was “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” That group then publicized McNair’s donation, and the blowback from Houston residents and city leaders was fast and strong. A week later, McNair rescinded his donation and publicly backtracked.
“I do not believe in or tolerate personal or professional discrimination of any kind. I also believe that we Houstonians should have an ordinance that unites our community and provides a bold statement of non-discrimination,” McNair wrote before using a quote from the late liberal Robert F. Kennedy on everyone working together.
McNair’s most notorious remark came last fall. At a league meeting on Oct. 18 to discuss the ongoing protests during the national anthem, McNair proclaimed “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Of course, the correct idiom is “inmates running the asylum,” and since two-thirds of the league’s players—and almost all of those who were protesting—are black, the comment generated controversy both around the league and within McNair’s own team. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back D’Onta Foreman skipped the next practice, while tackle Duane Brown called the comments “ignorant” and “embarrassing.”
McNair quickly issued a statement saying the comment was “very regretful” but that he was not referring to his our players but rather to the league not listening to ownership.
“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,” McNair said in the statement.
But then six months later, McNair had an about-face. “The main thing I regret is apologizing,” McNair told the Wall Street Journal. “I really didn’t have anything to apologize for.”
McNair’s most recent public gaffe may have put the final nail in a friend’s coffin. At the owners meetings in March, McNair offered up a defense of embattled Panthers founder Jerry Richardson following allegations of workplace misconduct both sexual and racial in nature. McNair told reporters that when Richardson shared his side of the story with owners, “he was very candid in what he said and what he did” and that McNair believed Richardson’s regret was that “he didn’t fight some of the things.”
Richardson and McNair are both from small North Carolina towns, both went to college in South Carolina and both made their millions in business outside of football. In the late ’90s as McNair was campaigning for his Houston franchise, Richardson served as the co-chair of the league’s expansion committee. Richardson’s Panthers would play in the first Super Bowl at McNair’s stadium following the 2003 season. And in 2015, both men were on the L.A. expansion committee, and McNair joined Richardson’s losing side in pushing for the Carson deal that would unite the Chargers and Raiders.
Surely McNair thought he was doing a friend a solid when he spoke in Richardson’s defense at the owners meetings, but it backfired in a huge way. One of Richardson’s accusers saw this as a breach of the non-disclosure agreement she signed with Richardson. She used the opportunity to speak her truth in a second bombshell SI report in the spring that detailed part of Richardson’s sexual harassment and ultimately dismantled his reputation on his way out the door.
Even though it’s too late, if recent history holds, McNair may still want to publicly walk those comments back too.