By Howard Balzer
Roger Goodell can't be happy.
Just when the NFL commissioner thought things had calmed down regarding national anthem protests following a meeting last week between selected owners, players and representatives of the NFLPA, the ongoing controversy exploded again Friday when a comment made by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair at a full owner's meeting Oct. 18 became public in a story on espn.com.
McNair's words – "We can't have the inmates running the prison" – resonated everywhere, but significantly in his own team's locker room as the Texans were two days away from their game in Seattle against the Seahawks.
A team meeting Friday delayed the start of practice, one that nearly didn't happen until players were convinced by coaches to work. One player, however, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, left the team facility and did not practice.
The meeting lasted 90 minutes and also present were general manager Rick Smith, head coach Bill O'Brien and assistant head coach Romeo Crennel.
Left tackle Duane Brown said, "When it happened, there's a thousand emotions going through your mind. Obviously, one of the emotions is to leave the building immediately. We decided to go to work. The situation's not over. It's something that we'll reconvene and talk about again, but we had practice."
When asked if he would consider not playing Sunday, Brown said, "I don't know. This game, this locker room, this field we play on isn't just about him. There's a lot of factors we have to consider. It's definitely something myself and a lot of people in here have to consider going forward."
When O'Brien was asked after practice about what McNair said and how he handled it with the team, he said, "It's been addressed. I'm really here to talk about Seattle. I'm 100 percent with these players. Our coaching staff's 100 percent behind these players. If you have Seattle questions, that's what I'm here to talk about, with all due respect, and there's a lot of respect there. I just want to focus on Seattle. I think that's what our team is trying to do."
As for Hopkins, O'Brien first said, "He's fine. He took a personal day today."
When pressed whether the absence was related to McNair's comment, O'Brien said, "Again, I'm really just focused on the game. If you guys have any Seattle (questions) - a couple guys had personal days today. We've had a long week coming off the bye. So, we practiced on Monday, we had an extra practice, so a couple guys needed to take care of some things."
Asked whether Hopkins will be in Seattle, O'Brien said, "I would tell you that he'll be here. If something changes, I'm sure we'll let you know."
After McNair said those words in the league meeting, the ESPN story said it "stunned some in the room."
One of those was African-American league executive vice president/football operations Troy Vincent, a former player, who told the owners that during his playing career he had been called many names, including the N-word, but "never felt like an inmate."
The ESPN story said McNair later apologized to Vincent, stressing that he didn't mean what he said "literally." That word was also in the statement the owner issued Friday morning that said, "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. I would never characterize our players or our league that way and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it."
Brown remained one of the most vocal Texans players. He ended a long holdout earlier this week and was the only player on the team to raise a fist during the anthem in games last season.
He said, "I think the comments were disrespectful, I think it was ignorant, I think it was embarrassing. I think it angered a lot of players, including myself. We put our bodies and minds (on the line) every time we step on the field. To use an analogy of inmates in a prison; I would say they're disrespectful.
"It's frustrating the climate we're in, as a country, as a league. The climate that we're in right now to have that be said is crazy. To have that said, it's horrible."
Never mind that the actual expression is about "inmates running the asylum." After all, much of the reaction also emphasized the attitude expressed by McNair, which has also been mentioned by others during the players' efforts to bring attention to social injustice: The notion that millionaire players should stick to playing football.
Saying he wasn't surprised by what McNair said, Brown added, "This is a skill and a talent we hone in from when we were six, seven years old. We've worked our asses off for this money. Anybody that feels like we're given this and we're just privileged to have this money; yes we're grateful for it. But it's not something that's just handed to us. We've put in blood, sweat and tears for this. That goes out the window when somebody says something like that.
"This is bigger than just the protests. This is the view of player-owner relationship. This is how you view us. 'You're an inmate. We can't let you get out of line. We can't let you speak for yourself.'"
Outspoken Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted, "I can appreciate ppl being candid. Don't apologize! You meant what you said. Showing true colors allows ppl to see you for who you are.
"I wish more ppl would do that. So the world could ostracize those who don't want to see EQUALITY. Otherwise they will continue to hide."
As hard as Goodell has seemingly tried to listen to the players and convince owners to do the same while finding ways for the teams and players to work together, this Friday Fiasco2 could bring the issue to the forefront once again like it did five weeks ago on a Friday when President Donald Trump galvanized the entire league with his harsh words toward players that protest.
Only now, instead of actions being directed at the President, this time it will center on those that sign the checks.
As Texans cornerback Treston DeCoud said, "I don't believe he (McNair) is the only owner that feels that way."
Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe wrote on Twitter: "Owners need to be careful. What was once hidden is starting to seep out. Players are seeing how they are really viewed by their tm owners."
Or at least some of them.
They can take comfort in the words of San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York, who has been criticized by other owners for not ordering then-quarterback Colin Kaepernick to stand last season, the belief being the current "crisis" wouldn't be happening.
Of course, that belies the fact that this year's protests weren't making headlines until Sept. 22 when Trump uttered his disdainful words.
What the supposed "crisis" did, ironically fueled by Trump, was force the league to be reactive and truly listen to what the players were saying.
A group of 11 did listen in that Oct. 17 meeting, after which York called it "one his proudest days," while noting that the now unemployed quarterback's "message has been lost. That's the disappointing part of all of this. The more you sit with players and hear what they're fighting for, it's hard to disagree with them.
"If we don't care about the causes that make them tick, then what are we about?"
Said Brown, when asked if he believes progress is being made, "It's frustrating, but I don't think it should discourage anybody. I think you stand with your beliefs. They feel how they feel. You've got to continue to feel how you feel. Hopefully at some point, we'll meet at some kind of middle ground, but it's frustrating, for sure."
When discussion turned to whether the league ought to clamp down on the protests, McNair suggested it should because "we can't have the inmates running the prison." The comment was taken as insensitive and demeaning to the players.
"I never meant to offend anyone, and I was not referring to our players," McNair said in a statement Friday. "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."
Some players on the Texans, though, were having a hard time accepting McNair's apology. They considered walking out of practice Friday, and one player, DeAndre Hopkins, did not attend, according to The Houston Chronicle.
Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown called McNair's comments "disrespectful," "ignorant," and "embarrassing."
"I think it angered a lot of players, including myself," he told The Chronicle. "To use an analogy of inmates in a prison, I would say they're disrespectful."
Texans coach Bill O'Brien and the team's general manager, Rick Smith, held a 90-minute meeting with the players later Friday, according to ESPN.
Players on other teams took notice, particularly Richard Sherman, a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, who will play against the Texans on Sunday.
On Twitter, Sherman said somewhat mockingly that McNair did not need to apologize. "You meant what you said," Sherman wrote. "Showing true colors allows ppl to see you for who you are."
McNair's apology came days before owners and players were expected to meet again at NFL headquarters to continue talking about how to address some of the players' concerns. Several players have been kneeling or sitting during the national anthem since last season to raise awareness about racism and related issues like police brutality against black Americans.
It is unclear whether McNair will attend the meeting.
McNair, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder are among the owners who have been most in favor of changing league rules to obligate players to stand during the anthem. Many other owners, though, do not want to force players to stand because they fear it could lead to an even larger backlash.