NFL players are not “inmates”

The racism inherent in one NFL owners comments regarding the ongoing player protests show that these protests have every reason to continue.

Will Caron

Roger Goodell and the National Football League’s owners have been doing their best to be seen in public as engaging with protesting players. But behind closed doors, it’s painfully clear that Goodell and the owners are working hard to silence these players and their efforts to promote both criminal justice reform and an end to systemic racism in America.

An ESPN report revealed that, at the recent NFL owners meeting, Texans owner Bob McNair said of the protesting players: “we can’t have inmates running the prison.”

After the owners finished, Troy Vincent stood up. He was offended by McNair’s characterization of the players as “inmates.” 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.” ... McNair later pulled Vincent aside and apologized, saying that he felt horrible and that his words weren’t meant to be taken literally, which Vincent appreciated.

For McNair to refer to the players as “inmates” is telling. It reveals just how racist the NFL, as an institution driven by its billionaire owners, really is and points to the irony of owners demanding athletes’ respect when they give none themselves. It shows just how owners like McNair feel about the situation: that Black men belong under the thumb of white owners. McNair’s comments are so offensive, star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins walked out of practice once he heard them. Now the whole team is planning to take a unified action against the team’s owner. His comment, dripping with racism, proves that these protests are not only warranted, they are critical to standing up against racism, police brutality and injustice.

Additionally, the same ESPN report that revealed McNair’s comments noted that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder were openly angry with San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York for not punishing Colin Kaepernick when he first knelt last year. Despite the owners disdain for Kaepernick, he will be sitting across from them at next week’s meeting between the players and owners. If those inside the NFL with power—from owners to leadership—don’t use this as a moment to push for real reforms, than they are doing nothing more than enabling and supporting racism and discrimination.

McNair’s comments and the league’s silence on them makes it hard to believe that they are acting in good faith in their negotiations with the protesting players. Roger Goodell and the NFL owners need to immediately repudiate McNair for his offensive comments.

Comments like these have a chilling effect on athletes’ right to protest—and not just in the NFL. Every time we’ve seen Trump, NFL owners, or powerful media figures attack players who protest, we see a wave of parents, coaches, local police, lawmakers and school administrators lash out at young athletes who protest. Which is why it is critical for Roger Goodell and the NFL owners to loudly condemn these comments.

It is no small thing that so many athletes have spoken out and used their bodies to express the desire to see a long overdue national dialogue on justice, dignity and police accountability in our country. And it is alarming that, instead of welcoming that dialogue, NFL owners continue to band together to chill free speech and send a message that speaking out against government-sanctioned violence is a career killer. That 70 percent of NFL players are Black and yet there is not a single Black majority owner, CEO or president of an NFL team, creates a disturbing power imbalance.

Despite that, these athletes continue to put themselves in harm’s way by taking action every game. History continues to teach us that their courage likely comes at risk of financial and professional repercussions, public ostracism and even death threats. When those that have a public platform use that platform to speak truth to power, we need to have their backs.

NFL players are not “inmates.” They are human beings, some of whom have chosen to protest the very real institutional racism that exists in America and manifests itself in the form of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence (among other forms). Using the American flag as cover to defend racist policy and behavior is what is truly unpatriotic, not kneeling in defense of human rights.