As my colleague Jeff Balke outlined earlier this week, the last six months or so have been a rough go for Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, largely due to the reaction from his comments back in October at a meeting between owners and the Players Coalition ("inmates running the prison") and his comments a few days ago, seemingly defending Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and doubling down on his stance about players protesting during the national anthem.
As McNair very clearly stated over the weekend, he is not a fan of political nor religious demonstrations bleeding into the on-field product, which presumably includes the national anthem. McNair is not alone among NFL owners in his point of view. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has gone so far as to say he would bench a player who knelt during the anthem.
However, there are many at all levels among the NFL hierarchy — Jets owner Christopher Johnson comes to mind — who believe the players are within their rights to express their views, even during the anthem. As it turns out, one of McNair's most important employees, head coach Bill O'Brien is among those in the corner of his players.
When O'Brien sat down with the media for the annual coach's breakfast at the owners' meeting in Orlando yesterday, the very first question was about McNair's comments earlier in the week. Here's what the Texans' head coach had to say:
“I’ve said many, many times over the last year that I respect everybody’s opinion. My personal opinion is, and I know it’s the opinion of the organization, I really believe this, players have a right to express themselves. We have very smart players that feel strongly about social issues. I believe in that. I believe in our players’ right to express themselves and I respect everybody’s opinion in the matter, and that’s really all I have to say about it. That’s what I’ve said all along. It is what it is.”
A follow up question of a similar variety, though, led to O'Brien doing something that most McNair critics have not done — pointing out that the Texans' owner's body of overall work shouldn't be dismissed or minimized because of some mangled metaphors or old man tone deafness:
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“I believe that we can all, all of us, come together – owners, coaches, players – all of us can come together to put out a better message. This thing is something that’s running down the tracks right now and we’re all having a hard time getting a handle on it. Our players do a tremendous amount in the community. I mean, I can list probably six things off the top of my head – start with the food bank, YMCA, schools, the flag football program, afterschool programs, probably should have started with Hurricane Harvey and everything that obviously J.J. (Watt) did and all the team did for Hurricane Harvey. I mean, we do so many things in the community – and that’s the one thing I do want to make clear, too, is I think we need to talk more about what the McNairs have done for the City of Houston, what their family has done for the city, even before they bought the team. The philanthropy that they’ve shown the City of Houston is incredible. And so, I just think that, I think your premise of your question is a really good one. I think if we could all just get together – I’ve always said that here at the owners’ meeting – I don’t understand why owners, coaches, players don’t get together and talk about these issues. We don’t seem like we ever really get anything resolved at the owners’ meeting. Once in a while we get a few things resolved on a rule basis or whatever it is. So, I think it’s a good question, but that’s kind of my opinion on it.”
In the end, O'Brien's stance on his players' right to express their views on political and social issues should not be surprising, considering his stance during the maelstrom that ensued following reports of McNair's "inmates" comment back in October. Even with some players boycotting a Friday practice, O'Brien openly sided with the players. Even as Duane Brown was holding out in the early weeks of the season, O'Brien was complimentary of Brown.
O'Brien is a the epitome of a players coach, which in the end, is probably something that helped him keep his job after a 4-12 season, and something from which the team ultimately benefits in attracting players like Tyrann Mathieu.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.