NFL owner says his only regret about comparing players to ‘inmates’ is apologizing for it

Bob McNair just keeps talking.

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Houston Texans owner Robert McNair looks up at the big screen before the football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans on November 5, 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Houston Texans owner Robert McNair looks up at the big screen before the football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans on November 5, 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Last year, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair caused quite a stir when ESPN reported that in a mid-season meeting with other NFL owners about on-field protests during the national anthem, McNair told his colleagues, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

In response, most Texans players took a knee during the national anthem before the team’s next game, and many spoke publicly (albeit sometimes anonymously) about their disappointment with the comments. McNair subsequently issued a pseudo-apology in which he said it was merely a figure of speech, adding “I apologize to anyone who was offended by it.”

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In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, McNair revisited that controversy, and took an opportunity to express his regret. Not for his initial statement, mind you: he apologized for apologizing.

“The main thing I regret is apologizing,” McNair told the WSJ. He rehashed his initial excuse — that this was a figure of speech, and that he was actually referring to the control the league executives had over the NFL owners. “I really didn’t have anything to apologize for,” he said.

The wide-ranging interview is likely to do much more harm than good for McNair’s already battered reputation.

The 80-year-old speaks loudly and often about donations he made to the victims of the 2015 Charleston shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He does not, however, mention his previous donations to anti-LGBTQ causes and the $1 million donation he made to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. 

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And while McNair denied previous reports that the Texans refused to sign any player who might take a knee during the national anthem, he defended the team’s refusal to sign quarterback Colin Kaepernick by saying the team looked at his tape and “didn’t like the way he threw the ball.”

Last year, the Texans’ star rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson went down with a season-ending injury seven games through the season. The team signed a number of quarterbacks far less accomplished than Kaepernick, including Tom Savage, T.J. Yates, and Josh Johnson. Houston lost eight of their final nine games, and managed to score at least 20 points only once in that time span.

A Seahawks fan holds a sign referencing a comment made by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair before the game between the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawk (Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images)
A Seahawks fan holds a sign referencing a comment made by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair before the game between the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawk (Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images)

This offseason, the Texans signed veteran QB Brandon Weeden, who hasn’t played in the NFL since 2015 and wasn’t good enough to make the Texans’ roster a year ago, despite being in training camp. The Texans could really use a mobile quarterback to backup the mobile Watson this season, so that their offense doesn’t have to abruptly change their whole playbook should he get injured again. Weeden is not that guy. Kaepernick very well could be.

Of course, according to McNair’s WSJ interview, the only reason the team isn’t signing Kaepernick is because of his throwing talent. It has nothing to do with the fact that he spoke out against systemic racism and oppression.

If you’re having a hard time believing him, you’ll find his rationale especially lacking when you hear what McNair said about former Texan Duane Brown, who protested during the national anthem in the 2016 season and was highly critical of McNair’s “inmate” comment and the way McNair handled issues of race and politics overall.

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“He has no problem saying things that are not true,” McNair said about Brown. He added that Brown made it hard for McNair to explain his “inmate” comments to players in the locker room, because “all Duane was trying to do was be a troublemaker.”

Brown was drafted by the Texans in 2008, and spent his entire career there until he was traded to the Seahawks midway through last season following a contract holdout and the controversy over McNair’s comments. On Thursday, about an hour after the WSJ article came out, Brown appeared to react to McNair’s statements on twitter.

McNair stressed to the WSJ that the NFL simply needs to “stay out of politics,” and he rejected the argument that players are allowed to take a knee during the national anthem because of free speech.

“As employers, we set conditions for all of our employees,” he said. “We don’t allow political meetings or statements or that sort of thing during working hours. You wouldn’t let somebody working at McDonald’s, when somebody pulls through, give them a hamburger and say, ‘I don’t know why you’re eating that beef, why aren’t you a vegetarian?’ You don’t allow that. Well, that’s freedom of expression.”

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Look, none of McNair’s statements are all that surprising. They’re right in line with the values he’s always publicly expressed. But all of it is infuriating, frustrating, and just plain sad. It’s sad that an NFL owner feels comfortable saying these things out loud. It’s frustrating that McNair didn’t learn a single thing from his critics last year. And it’s infuriating that Kaepernick and some of his closest allies are being blackballed from the NFL simply for raising awareness of police brutality and systemic racism.

The NFL wants to move past protests during the national anthem. It desperately wants this whole issue to go away. But it’s not going anywhere. Because the more owners like McNair speak up, the more it becomes clear that the societal forces these players are protesting aren’t just external ones. The call is coming from inside the house.