Houston Texans’ fiasco piles on NFL’s increasingly irksome headache

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

No one is quite sure what, if anything, Houston Texans players will do Sunday before their game against the Seattle Seahawks in response to owner Bob McNair’s comments reported this week in an ESPN the Magazine story.

During a recent owners meeting, McNair lobbied for the league to take a hard stance against players who kneel during the playing of the pregame national anthem, saying, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

The more common phrase is “inmates running the asylum,” which is hardly a positive way to label employees but is at least an old saying. Whether McNair innocently screwed up the phrasing or this was indicative of him seeing his players as criminals is now open to debate. McNair apologized when initially confronted by Troy Vincent, an NFL vice president and former player, about the comment. Since the ESPN story, he has issued a public apology and has met with his team.

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair has drawn the ire of his players after insulting protesting players during a recent owner’s meeting. (AP Photo)

“I know they were upset,” McNair told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. “I wanted to answer their questions. I told them if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t use that expression.”

By Sunday, the Texans players may be satisfied. Or they may demonstrate. Or they may gain some other demand but not publicly display their dissatisfaction. Players on other teams may even jump in.

Who knows?

And that alone is a headache for the NFL, which was desperate to put the kneeling players if not behind it, then at least on a back burner and return the focus to actual football. It was a reality that seemed possible.

Just 22 NFL players knelt for the national anthem last Sunday, according to the AP. More than half of them came from just two teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Seahawks. Most NFL games had no player protests.

Essentially, in Week 7, the demonstrations nearly returned to their pre-Trump Week 2 levels. ESPN reported that week just seven players knelt with maybe a dozen more offering support with hands on their shoulders or fists in the air. For the most part, what Colin Kaepernick started in 2016 was no longer attracting a lot of attention. Many players were more focused in working away from the stadium with police and community leaders.

Then President Donald Trump went to a campaign rally in Alabama and reignited a wildfire, another day of governing via wedge issues with the attention span of a cable television segment.

Some fans followed his call and tuned out the product, another blow against already sagging television ratings. The NFL was rocked, uncertain what to do. It briefly united against the president but was still stuck in an uneasy truce. Plenty of the league, including plenty of players, wanted to stand. There was dialogue though. There was discussion. There were respectful debates about solutions, even if Trump declared there was “too much talk.”

Now, just as it was appearing to be fading from attention, here came Bob McNair, shooting the league in the foot.

Trump had seemingly moved on from the issue. He tweeted about it just once last week, on Monday, noting there was “no leadership in NFL!” He then didn’t mention it again. For Trump, who wages daily or hourly battles with all sorts of people, companies and countries, a single tweet is meaningless.

He spent the rest of the week feuding with a Gold Star family, members of his own political party who declared him unfit for office and having the White House declare all the women who accused him of sexual assault were liars. Next week promised to be focused on pending arrests from special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Maybe Trump could have dragged it back out as a greatest hit to distract from the news of the day and rally his base, but it felt like this was dying down. Some fans had assuredly abandoned the NFL when the kneeling issue first arose in 2016, which is their right. Most though had come to support it, accept it or at least find an uneasy truce. That included no less than Vice President Mike Pence, who planned to attend a Week 5 game between San Francisco and Indianapolis only to decide he was too offended to watch after Trump told him to walk out if players knelt. If he had really cared about the issue, he never would have gone to the game in the first place.

The NFL’s television ratings remain down, but deeper and more precise data suggested this was not simply a protest issue, but death by 1,000 paper cuts. There are certainly people not watching because of the protesters, just as there are people not watching because the NFL doesn’t employ Kaepernick.

Others point to the loss of franchises in St. Louis and San Diego (the nation’s 21st and 28th largest markets). Then there are the natural disasters that have uprooted lives in Florida, Houston and Northern California. Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt and Odell Beckham Jr. are all injured. Peyton Manning is still retired. The networks believe they can solve the problem with fewer national television windows (eliminating at least eight Thursday night games and all the early Sunday ones from London).

New York, the nation’s No. 1 television market, has seen meaningful drops in year-over-year viewership in part because the Giants (down 7 percent) and the Jets (down a whopping 48 percent) have gotten off to slow starts, according to the Sports Business Journal. In L.A., the second biggest market, the novelty of the Rams is over and their ratings are down a massive 74 percent. No one, meanwhile, is watching the Chargers.

That can’t all be boycotters. Sports Business Journal reported that the age demographic that has seen the greatest drop in viewership this year is 18- to 34-year-olds, down 11 percent. While there are undoubtedly some angry about the kneeling in that group, that’s also the demographic least supportive of Trump. Gallup reported in August that just 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds approve of Trump’s job performance. Why would the age that likes him the least follow him the most? It stands to reason more of them are cutting out, or down on, television, content to catch highlights via social media or finding other sports, notably soccer, as worthy of their passion.

“Much of the loss of viewers is coming from 18- to 34-year-olds,” Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports told Sports Business Journal. “They more and more are getting satisfied by the alternatives of highlights and scores that are available during the game. That continues to train young viewers to follow our sports, not watch our sports. That is concerning for all sports television.”

Regardless, the boycotts hurt. The president ripping the league hurts. Everything hurts when business is down. It’s understandable, in a purely bottom-line way, that there was fatigue in the league about all of it. There was at least some push to use the power of the NFL to aid law enforcement and player initiatives to improve police-community relations. That’s something everyone should support.

Now it’s back to eyeing the sideline during the anthem. Now it’s another Sunday of uncertainty. Will the Texans demonstrate, this time against their own boss, as this controversy pushes into new and unchartered territory, far beyond how anyone could have foreseen it going?

Tune in to find out. Or don’t.

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