There was a flurry of articles last week proclaiming that NFL player protests against racism and police brutality were winding down and entering a new stage: what a spokesperson for Commissioner Roger Goodell had branded moving “from protest to progress.” Then along came Bob McNair.
The Houston Texans owner and billionaire Trump bundler remarked that catering to the concerns of players about racism in the criminal-justice system was like “letting inmates run the prison.” Yes, he really said that. On an issue that in NFL circles was about as sensitive as defusing a bomb with tweezers, McNair brought an axe, and the situation immediately detonated.
It wasn’t just the way McNair’s words seemed to mock the very issue central to the protests; it was the fact that they fed the perception of NFL players—70 percent of whom are black—that the league treats them like expendable pieces of equipment rather than human beings. And these grievances are longstanding. Three decades ago Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm infamously said, “The players are like cattle and the owners are ranchers, and the owners can always get more cattle.”
It is an article of faith among many players that management is indifferent to the toll the game takes on their bodies and brains. It is also an article of faith that many owners are like Bob McNair—people who, in the words of Randy Moss, act like they don’t just own the franchise but the players. This is why the demonstrations held during the anthem, while explicitly about racism and police violence, also owe their tenacious endurance to the readiness of black players to assert their humanity in a dehumanizing sport.
According to cornerback Jonathan Joseph, the Texans wanted to be part of the protests in weeks past but didn’t participate out of deference for Bob McNair. And this was how their respect was repaid. Not surprisingly, the majority of the Houston Texans were not only furious when McNair’s quote leaked but also willing to act. According to numerous reports, the team considered an immediate full-scale walkout from practice. They also discussed the removal of the team decals before Sunday’s game against the Seahawks. Even the previously unthinkable idea of a boycott—forfeiting the game—was in the air.
When his words went public, McNair apologized in two separate statements. In the latter one he said, “I was not referring to our players when I made a very regretful comment during the owners meetings last week. I was referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years.” Yes, he was saying that the “inmates” in his mind, were execs in the league office. It didn’t exactly pass the smell test.
But any statement from McNair, even if ghostwritten by Sonia Sanchez, would have meant less than nothing. Apologies for public consumption were never going to make this right. This is not about hurt feelings between members of the “NFL family.” This is about, as professor Lou Moore has written, a “black labor movement.” We are witnessing the assertion of the economic power of black workers to reclaim their humanity in response to those who would deny it.
Just as the black sanitation laborers of Memphis in 1968 took the slogan “I Am a Man,” the Houston Texans are telling Bob McNair that they won’t be infantilized, criminalized, or made to feel like something less than free. And like many black-led labor movements throughout history, they are starting to pull white workers to their side. On the field, we saw white Houston Texan players either take a knee or rest hands on the shoulders of their black teammates. Off the field, polls are shifting in favor of protesting players, and the shifting numbers are white respondents. They are shifting, I suspect, because Trump has been so toxic and the players so disciplined in their response to both Trump’s bigotry and McNair’s idiocy.
Look at the comments from Eagle Malcolm Jenkins in response to what McNair said:
“Obviously his comments will represent him, but from a player’s standpoint, we’re focused on our goals, we feel like we still have an opportunity to move forward with whoever is interested in doing that, and so hopefully we can get that same type of commitment from those in league leadership.
“That’s our goal. It’s not to appease one another, it’s not to change someone’s personal opinion, it’s just to get some actual work done and change done.”
Change is coming because these players have their eyes on the ”actual work” and are becoming fully aware of their own power, which means they are also becoming fully aware of their worth. They aren’t inmates, and they aren’t independent contractors. They are workers with a collective sense of their power. And that is Bob McNair’s worst nightmare.