“I Know What You Said…And, I Know What You Meant”


“We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” ~ Bob McNair, Owner Houston Texans

Well, it’s happened again. A powerful White man whose business is almost solely supported by Black labor has said aloud what has been ruminating in his head. In 2014 then Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, was banned from the NBA because his racist conversations were recorded and released to the public. As shocked as everyone seemed to be, it is clear to most Black people statements like those of Sterling are common place among Whites—both those in power and those in lowly positions. We know that many Whites harbor incredibly racist thoughts about Blacks and other people of color. And, in a free society they are allowed to have those thoughts. But, for the last few decades, in this post-Civil Rights Era, we have come to expect people to at least monitor their behavior in a society that is rapidly changing along racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexuality, and ability lines.

When Paula Dean, the Food Network star, was castigated for having used the N-word, most Black people I knew who were at least 50 years old shrugged their shoulders and said, “Of course a 60 year old woman from the South has used the N-word. We’d be shocked if she hadn’t.” We recognize that as long as we live and operate in ethnic enclaves unsavory racial and racist comments will be spoken.

We are in an especially difficult time in our country. Racism has reared its ugly head in all kinds of places. We see it on our college campuses. We see it in corporate boardrooms. We even see it in the highest office of the land when the President declares that “there were bad people on ‘both sides’,” when referring to Nazi, Klan, and White supremacists protestors and their counter protestors.

Houston Texan football team owner Bob McNair revealed something that has bothered me about American football and basketball for a long time. African American athletes dominate both sports. And although they are well compensated, they play sports that have no guarantee of career security or longevity. At each contest players are one play away from some career-ending injury. And, they make the owners an astronomical amount of money. The NFL owners are worth between 2 and 6 plus billion dollars! Bob McNair is worth 3.8 billion. But he believes that the simple act of taking a knee in protest of continued police brutality against African Americans represents “the inmates running the prison.” Actually, I think he really means, “the slaves are running the plantation.” In his mind he “bought” these players and they are to do what he wants them to do.

The relationship between an employer and employee is often fraught with tension. They are not in an equal status relationship. But, they are supposed to be in a respectful relationship. Their contracts determine the parameters of that relationship. But working for someone does not mean they own you. The 13th amendment banned slavery and involuntary servitude but far too many powerful White people act as if the amendment is just a formality or a suggestion.

Bob McNair is not alone in his low opinion of Black athletes. Their bodies are mere interchangeable parts on the fields, stadiums, and courts they own. They are their “boys” and for the most part all they want from them is to be “good boys” who win games and earn the owners more money. When they struggle with substance addictions or devolve into situations involving domestic violence the only thing the owners seem to want to know is how soon they can get back on the field or court. But when they express a political opinion they are seen as stepping out of line. They are being “uppity” and no one likes an “uppity” Negro!

Bob McNair has since apologized and claims his remark was not aimed at the players but at the league office. But that makes no sense. The league office is not subservient to the teams. The league office administers the game. It dispatches the officials. It is the place where the rules get made. They are SUPPOSED to run the league, so saying they are the “inmates “is nonsense. Mr. McNair, we know what you said…and more important, we know what you meant!

Stay Black & Smart!

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