“Don’t you see, you’re the cattle and we’re the ranchers,’’ former Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm told former NFLPA head Gene Upshaw during the 1987 strike.
Schramm’s comments are worth remembering in light of the controversy over Houston Texans owner Bob McNair saying they can’t let the inmates run the prison during a meeting in New York earlier this month.
Once the comment was included in an ESPN the Magazine story on the meeting, there was a firestorm. The uproar transcended sports and was reported in network TV newscasts.
The Houston players threatened to walk out Friday, although veteran DeAndre Hopkins and rookie D’Onta Foreman were apparently the only ones who did.
Coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith were left to clean up the mess with the players and convinced the rest of them to stay for practice. O’Brien then said that Hopkins was taking a “personal day,’’ as if NFL players take personal days during the season unless there is a family emergency.
McNair immediately issued a statement of apology, then met with the players Saturday.
“I know they were upset,’’ McNair said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I wanted to answer their questions. I told them if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t use that expression.’’
McNair also issued a statement Saturday saying he wasn’t referring to the players, but the relationship between the league office and owners. But it’s difficult to believe he wasn’t talking about the players, who certainly thought they were referring to him.
And with the owners talking about giving Roger Goodell a contract extension, it certainly doesn’t sound the owners have a problem with the league office.
But it gives McNair cover if there is any attempt to force him to sell, a la Donald Sterling.
The Texans players have talked about staging some sort of protest before their game in Seattle on Sunday, but it is uncertain what they will do.
Still, Schramm’s comments several decades ago show that McNair’s feelings about the players are not new. And they are probably not even racist. The league likely had close to a white majority when Schramm made his comments.
Regardless of the race of the players, the owners view them as employees with no equity stake. As the phrase goes, the inmates are not going to run the asylum. McNair didn’t even get the phrase right, using the word prison instead of asylum.
Remember, the owners crushed the 1987 strike with replacement games that counted in the standings. The NFLPA hasn’t gone on strike since.
When the owners felt that former commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave the players too sweet a deal before he retired, they locked them out in 2011 until they got a deal that took money out of the players’ pockets and put it in theirs.
The players did get some concessions like a shorter offseason and elimination of two-a-days in training camp, but the owners got more money.
Of course, most owners are savvy enough not to make comments like McNair did. They’re promoting the players, who are the product, and they don’t want to alienate them.
As former player Brian Mitchell was once quoted as saying, ”The NFL is like going to a great steakhouse. The players are the chef. But they’re also the steak.’’
The owners also were savvy enough to ignore Donald Trump when he called for the players to be fined or suspended for kneeling during the national anthem.
They not only didn’t do that, they didn’t try to ban them from kneeling.
That would have just inflamed the situation and surely led to a lawsuit the players might have lost.
Instead, the owners are still trying to placate the players by trying to find a way to address their concerns about injustice in America.
They will have another meeting Tuesday in New York and have even invited Colin Kaepernick, who started the protests last year and is apparently being blackballed because no team will sign him.
Kaepernick’s lawyer said McNair’s comments show the owners are guilty of collusion in keeping Kaepernick out of the league.
As they try to smooth things over, the owners will probably avoid making any comments like McNair’s.
That doesn’t change the fact that the owners feel they will run the asylum. It’s their league and the players are workers.
With all the problems they have, the unfortunate thing is that the owners aren’t running it very well these days and keep shooting themselves in the foot.