Among the several voices in the room who opposed the protests was Texans owner Bob McNair, who said of the protesting players, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
The account was relayed by ESPN, which published an article Friday detailing the league’s internal handwringing over the protests. McNair’s comments stunned some in the room, ESPN reports, with Patriots owner Robert Kraft delicately moving the conversation forward afterward.
Troy Vincent, a retired NFL player who now works as an executive for the league, told those in the meeting he’d been called all manner of slurs when he was a player, but he never felt like an “inmate.” (McNair later offered Vincent a personal apology.)
Representatives for the Texans and McNair didn’t immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment, but the team did release a statement in which McNair said his comments were “a figure of a speech.”
“I never meant to offend anyone and I was not referring to our players,” the statement reads. “I could never characterize our players or our league that way and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it.”
Texans players considered staging a walkout Friday in protest over the comments, ESPN reported. Ten ultimately left, but most were talked into staying.
Star wide receiver Deandre Hopkins reportedly opted to take a personal day in protest:
All-pro left tackle Duane Browne also strongly voiced his dissent, telling media permitted into the locker room after practice that he had a “thousand” emotions going through his mind.
“Obviously one emotion is just to leave the building completely,” he said. “But we decided to go to work. The situation is not over, and it’s something that we’ll reconvene and talk about.”
“This is how you view us?” he said, referring to McNair. “You’re an inmate. We can’t let you get out of line. We can’t let you speak for yourself. We can’t let you have your own beliefs. That’s what it feels like, it’s a bad situation.”
At a press conference Friday afternoon, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said the coaching staff is “100 percent” behind the players.
According to ESPN’s Texans reporter Sarah Barshop, the team intends to hold some sort of demonstration ahead of Sunday’s game in Seattle, although the details have yet to be settled.
Eric Reid, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and the first player to join Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem, also added his voice to the chorus of outrage, tweeting, “Thank God not every inmate is incarcerated by racism and prejudice.”
Thank God not every inmate is incarcerated by racism and prejudice. Eric Reid
McNair’s explanation also didn’t satisfy sports commentator Skip Bayless and former NFL player Shannon Sharpe, who didn’t hold back in their criticism on their show Friday.
“The cliche quote is running the ‘asylum’ and he made it way worse,” Bayless pointed out. “He made it ‘prison.’”
“To refer to us as inmates,” Sharpe said in disbelief. “And to refer to the NFL — he referred to the NFL as a prison! Is that what you think of me?”
Bayless predicted the statement would set off a new round of protests, noting they’re on par with President Donald Trump’s “SOB quote.”
Last month, Trump called on NFL owners to fire “son of a bitch” players who kneel during the anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality. More than 200 players opted to sit or kneel during the national anthem that weekend.
Internet pranksters made a couple of choice edits to McNair’s Wikipedia page after the story broke, changing his occupation from “businessman” to “prison owner”:
McNair is one of the league’s most politically involved owners, typically donating to Republican causes. He donated $2.4 million to Trump’s campaign efforts, according to FEC data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
This article has been updated with reactions from Texans players and Reid.