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NFL owner on players protesting during the anthem: ‘We can’t have the inmates running the prison’

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Earlier this month, after a select group of NFL owners, players, and executives met for a much-anticipated meeting in New York City about the protests during the national anthem, the 12 owners in attendance met with the rest of the NFL owners to debrief them.

During that meeting, a small group of owners who feel that NFL players should be required to stand during the anthem expressed their frustration with the way the league as a whole was handling the divisive topic.

“We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said, according to an explosive report by Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

ESPN says that McNair’s statement “stunned some in the room.” Troy Vincent, who had a 14-year NFL career and is now the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the NFL, reportedly confronted McNair about his statement during the meeting.

“Vincent said that in all his years of playing in the NFL — during which, he said, he had been called every name in the book, including the N-word — he never felt like an ‘inmate,’” Wickersham and Van Natta Jr. reported. McNair later apologized to Vincent personally, saying he did not mean that expression literally.

Obviously though, that is a loaded statement, especially given the fact that the players are kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality and systemic racism, which the criminal justice system exemplifies. Seventy percent of all NFL players are black, as are nearly all of the NFL players who have taken a knee during the last two seasons. All but one of the 32 NFL owners are white.

The entire report by Wickersham and Van Natta Jr. is a must-read, as it details the inner workings of these high-stakes meetings. But the most revealing part is how the owners, even some who are empathetic to their concerns, talk about NFL players.

The meeting was going so well that even the unintentionally awkward moments were forgiven. At one point, Buffalo Bills co-owner Terry Pegula, moved by Anquan Boldin’s story about his cousin being shot and killed by a police officer, complimented him on how impressive he was but kept calling him “Antwan.” Then Pegula suggested that Boldin would be the perfect NFL spokesman on social issues not only because he had walked away from the game to pursue causes but because, the owner said, it couldn’t be a “white owner but needs to be someone who’s black.”

Perhaps the most surprising part of the report is how NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handled the situation in private.

He did not let owners who were adamantly against the protests, such as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, completely derail the discussions. Instead, he encouraged owners to listen to the players concerns, and even showed support for a three-pronged action plan presented by Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s vice president of social responsibility. The plan called for the league to broaden its My Cause, My Cleats initiative; help arrange more meetings between players and legislators, on the local, state, and federal level; and use the NFL’s massive platform to amplify these causes. (Notably, ESPN reports that Goodell was not impressed with this plan when it was first presented to him, but advocated for it during the meeting with the players.)

But despite the fact that the discussion between the players and owners was seen as productive by both sides at the time, and the fact that the NFL owners did not unilaterally ban protests after these meetings, most players are still skeptical of the league’s commitment to change.

This week, San Diego Chargers left tackle Russell Okung expressed frustration with the NFL’s lack of action since the meeting two weeks ago.

“I am disappointed that further progress has not been reached on discussions with the league,” Okung said Thursday, as reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “NFL officials appear unmotivated and don’t share the same sense of urgency. Increasingly, the meetings appear unproductive at best and disingenuous at worst. Furthermore, the ongoing disparagement of Colin Kaepernick is a factor needing remedy for the players and public to feel heard and for real progress to be made.”

Kaepernick is suing the NFL owners for collussion, saying that they worked together to keep him out of the league this year because of the protests he ignited last year. Some NFL executives expect Kaepernick to attend the next meeting between NFL owners and players, which is scheduled for next Tuesday, October 31.

However, Okung and other players who attended last week’s meeting might not be in attendance next Tuesday, because they have been so disappointed by what has (or, rather, has not) transpired over the last 10 days.

“I thought there were concrete plans to help,” Okung said. “To my dismay, that wasn’t true at all. It’s only remained as just talking. There hasn’t been any action.”

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