NEW YORK (Reuters) – The owner of the National Football League’s Houston Texans apologized on Friday for using a figure of speech that compared players to “inmates” as he discussed protests staged during the national anthem ahead of games.
An article in ESPN The Magazine, posted online on Friday, quoted Bob McNair as saying in a meeting, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” as he exhorted other owners to consider how the protests could hurt the league’s bottom line.
“I regret that I used that expression,” McNair, 79, said in a statement. “I never meant to offend anyone and I was not referring to our players. I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally.”
A number of players, mostly African-American, have knelt or raised fists during the “Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of minorities by police officers and racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Others have stood arm-in-arm in a show of solidarity.
President Donald Trump escalated the controversy in September, when he suggested owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who refused to stand for the anthem.
Trump has portrayed kneeling as an insult to the military and has kept up his attacks on Twitter, fueling further demonstrations.
The subject dominated a two-day meeting earlier this month in New York among league executives and team owners, where McNair is said to have made the comment. The league ultimately rejected Trump’s call for protesting players to be punished.
ESPN reported later on Friday that several Texans players considered staging a walkout over McNair’s comments and that at least one player, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, skipped practice.
McNair, a billionaire, gave money to Trump’s presidential campaign last year, as did many other NFL owners.
The protests began in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick, then a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, began sitting and later kneeling during the anthem to call attention to police shootings of unarmed black men in the United States.
Kaepernick was not signed by any team after becoming a free agent following the 2016 season. He has filed a claim of illegal collusion against the league’s owners.
A Seton Hall University poll on Friday found 47 percent of respondents believe the NFL should order players to stand during the anthem, while 42 percent do not.
Most people, by a 55-to-37 percent margin, also said it was inappropriate for Trump to launch a recent petition on the Republican National Committee website saying the players should stand.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Dan Grebler and Andrew Hay