An excellent ESPN.com summary of the things that transpired at last week’s NFL ownership meetings included a report that Texans owner Bob McNair had said during a session involving mostly owners that “[w]e can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Now that the comment been made public, more than a week after the words were uttered, McNair has issued a public apology.
“I regret that I used that expression,” McNair said. “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.”
McNair’s apology seems genuine and reasonable. The phrase (more commonly formulated as “inmates running the asylum”) refers to those who are being governed trying to become those who govern.
And so for the same reason that the “son of a bitch” remark from President Trump shouldn’t have been interpreted literally as an insult against the mothers of NFL players, McNair’s comment shouldn’t be regarded literally as an insult against the players. Like the comment from President Trump, however, the players should be offended by the underlying message.
The underlying message is this: We run this operation. You don’t. You are the hired help. We are the NFL. We, not you, will run the NFL. We, not you, will occupy the real seats at the table. We, not you, own the teams. We, not you, will be around long after your careers are over and done. We, not you, made the NFL what it currently is. And we, not you, will solve this and every other problem that the league will face, now or in the future.
Players, who currently get a fairly equal share of the revenue but none of the equity, should be far more upset about that you-work-for-us attitude than about the specific words McNair chose to convey it.
Not that any of these realities will ever change. But the players need to keep the broader dynamics in mind when assessing efforts by ownership to persuade players to stand for the anthem while getting comparatively little in return. The players, by reserving the right to not stand for the anthem, have put the owners in a position that they rarely occupy — a position of weakness that, if the players choose to hold firm, can be escaped only by making real concessions that will get them to agree to stand as part of the labor deal.
Sure, the league claims that it currently has the right to mandate standing without collective bargaining. But the league is smart enough not to issue that directive unilaterally. Though the leagues hope it can get players to say, “Screw it, we’ll stand,” the owners know that, if push ever comes to shove on this issue, it will be the owners who find themselves in the rare spot of being pushed and shoved around.
And the end result could be something they won’t want to stick in their trophy case.