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‘We can’t have the inmates running the prison’: Anti-protest NFL owners are fighting a losing battle

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair is under fire for reportedly saying, “we can’t have inmates running the prison.” (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

The NFL’s owners met earlier this month to discuss how they should handle the continuing protests of the league’s players during the playing of the national anthem. The two-day meetings, which included a session attended by owners and a group of players, ended without the league enacting a mandate that players stand for the anthem.

Those meetings are the subject of a story published Friday morning by ESPN reporters Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. The main takeaways:

  1. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t get his way, for once.
  2. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said something so problematic that he’s now apologized twice for it.

The decision not to enact an anthem mandate was hashed out during the second day of the meetings at a New York hotel, one day after the owners and players sat down to talk with one another. Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was the first to speak out in favor of making the players stand, alleging the protests were hurting his team’s bottom line. Then it was Jones’s turn, and the ESPN scribes described him as frustrated that not everyone was following his lead, as most of the owners did during previous discussions about team relocation. Jones is said to have rallied his fellow owners to support the Rams’ move back to Los Angeles and the Raiders’ pending move to Las Vegas, cementing his status as the league’s “so-called de facto commissioner,” in the words of seasoned Texas sports journalist Clarence Hill Jr.

The NFL can fire players, but it won't be easy. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

But few were on Jones’s side this time. But Snyder was one, saying, “See, Jones gets it — 96 percent of Americans are for guys standing” during the Cowboys owner’s speech. Wickersham and Van Natta say some owners viewed that as “a grand overstatement,” and an HBO Real Sports/Marist poll seems to back that perspective up. The poll, conducted around the same time as the meetings, found Americans are almost evenly split between those who support the players and those who don’t.

Then it was McNair’s turn to support Jones, who had promised to bench any of his players if they protested during the anthem. The Texans owner, who donated millions to the presidential campaign of NFL antagonist Donald Trump, echoed many of the same points about how the player protests were having a negative impact on the league’s bottom line.

“We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” McNair said, a comment that “stunned some in the room,” according to ESPN’s reporters.

In the end, the hard-line owners had only nine votes in favor of mandating that players stand during the anthem, according to an unofficial count. The opposition was fueled mainly by an antagonism to Jones’s nonstop grandstanding and power grabs. As told by Wickersham and Van Natta:

Some owners had tired of Jones always commandeering such meetings; some were jealous of his power and eager to see him go down; some saw the players-must-stand mandate as bad policy to invoke in the middle of the season; some owners were angry with Jones’ hard-line public stance on kneeling, feeling that it had backed them all into a corner. “The majority of owners understand this is important to the players and want to be supportive, even if they don’t exactly know how to be supportive,” one owner says.

McNair, to his credit, later apologized to Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of operations. Vincent, who is black, said during the meeting that he had been offended by McNair’s remark, considering that he had been called the n-word but never an “inmate” during his lengthy playing career. On Friday, after the story’s publication, McNair apologized again:

The NFL’s owners and players are scheduled to meet again Tuesday to continue their dialogue. Colin Kaepernick, who last year kick-started the protests by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem — a stance that seemingly has cost him NFL employment — is expected to be invited. Will Jones show up, too?

NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell said players should stand for the national anthem at a press conference on Oct. 18. (Video: Reuters)

Read more from The Post:

The Jaguars — yes, those Jaguars — are a legitimate force in the AFC

The Patriots’ Tom Brady, still evolving at 40, is going deep like never before

Cowboys say release of Damontre Moore was unrelated to his anthem protests

Cam Newton has another problematic moment at a news conference

Colin Kaepernick reportedly gets $1 million book deal