'Inmates running the prison': Owners divided over protest responses

The NFL is more socially conscious now than it’s been in decades, if ever, but that consciousness is coming at a significant cost. In the wake of protests during the anthem, ratings are down, sponsors are complaining, and owners are getting nervous … and, perhaps, tipping their hand as to how they really feel about the players who protest.

A new ESPN article by Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham takes readers behind the scenes of last week’s meetings between players and owners, giving a look at the deep rifts that exist within the NFL. Some owners advocate for players, some advocate for the league, and some advocate for … something else entirely. The whole article is very much worth a read, but here are some of the most significant quotes from owners on the protests:

Bob McNair, Texans: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
McNair was speaking in response to the business concerns posed by the protests, and his characterization of the players as “inmates” reportedly shocked many in the room. McNair later told NFL executive Troy Vincent, who objected to the term, that he felt “horrible and that his words weren’t meant to be taken literally,” according to the article, but it’s not hard to see why that turn of phrase might not go over well.

McNair offered a statement shortly after the article ran:

Daniel Snyder, Redskins: “Ninety-six percent of Americans are for guys standing.”
Snyder has been a strong advocate of players standing during the anthem, and has supported his on-field rival, the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, in moves to force players to stand. But there’s no indication in any poll that anything close to an overwhelming majority of Americans favor players standing. Indeed, a slim majority, 51 percent, of respondents in a recent Marist/HBO poll said the exact opposite, that players should not be required to stand.

Jed York, 49ers, and Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles
York and Lurie have emerged as two strong advocates for the players’ interests. As the article notes, “York emphasized that he understood the business concerns [arising from the protests] and that each market was different, and that he had been talking to his players for a long time and would continue to do so. Lurie had spoken up during the meeting, supporting the players’ right to kneel.” York noted of the discussions, “There was sincerity on both sides.”

Arthur Blank, Falcons: “He did a great job because he didn’t say much.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tried to broker a compromise between owners and players, and won praise from Blank (who added, “I don’t mean that in a negative way” to his quote above) for steering a middle course and showing sympathy to the players’ cause while still aware of the needs of the league as a whole. Goodell’s responsiveness came as a surprise to some players, who “privately view the commissioner as the puppet of ruthless billionaire owners,” according to the ESPN article.

Jerry Jones, Cowboys: “I’m the ranking owner here.”
Jones has emerged as a powerful force advocating for the protests to be complete and the NFL to get back to the business of football. He’s noticed the eroding ratings and the sponsor nervousness, and he, per the ESPN article, fears that the NFL is not treating the issue with the urgency and diligence it deserves. As a result of his hardline stance against kneeling, Jones was kept out of some discussions, for fear that his presence would distort the entire meeting agenda.

Jones further elaborated on his own stance on Friday morning:

In the end, little was solved, but much was learned. The owners remain as divided amongst themselves as America is in watching the protests unfold. Read the full article here.

Roger Goodell is navigating difficult straits as NFL commissioner. (AP)
Roger Goodell is navigating difficult straits as NFL commissioner. (AP)

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Got a comment, tip, or question for a future NFL mailbag? Contact him at or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.