“It’s not what you don’t say that gets you into trouble,” said Sam Rayburn, the legendary Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Bonham, Texas. Sadly, it’s advice that’s often ignored, to the detriment of far too many public figures.
The latest victim of ill-considered speech is Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, a National Football League franchise always eager for the right kind of attention. Unfortunately, a throwaway line Mr. McNair used during a recent closed-door NFL owners meeting produced exactly the sort of recognition the team doesn’t want.
"We can't have the inmates running the prison,” McNair is quoted saying in reference to NFL players, using an analogy at best offensive and at worst contemptible. Watching just 15 minutes of Sunday afternoon football and witnessing one more of the horrific injuries players routinely suffer should be enough to convince even the most cynical observer that these brave and agile young men don’t deserve the callous disdain encapsulated in that remark.
Of course, the Houston Texans’ players aren’t inmates and the NFL is hardly a prison, but it's worth asking what kind of thinking led McNair to find the analogy so appropriate. Insulated from life’s customary constraints by wealth and status, McNair’s privilege and entitlement may make these kinds of statements inevitable. The lesson that great wealth and uncontested power are inherently corrupting is an old one; what’s surprising is that men of Bob McNair’s intelligence and business acumen haven’t learned it.
This is especially true given the racial context of the remark. For the record: no Anglo American, regardless of how well-intentioned or thoughtful they may be, can have the slightest idea of what it means to awaken each morning an African-American. Kidnapped, chained and bludgeoned into involuntary servitude, the African-American experience in the New World pre-dates our nation itself. Dispossessed of home, hearth, families and freedom, the continent’s first Africans were pressed into service building America, always without thanks, recognition or pay.
In the present day their voting rights (such as they are) continue to be suppressed, their communities shattered, their men imprisoned, their leaders murdered and their social status debased. Few African-American families cannot cite at least one negative encounter with the criminal justice system, experiences that are always unpleasant, often dangerous and occasionally fatal.
So yes, African-Americans were, and in too many cases still are, inmates of a societal prison despite having committed no crime save that of being born black. And just to make that point perfectly clear, every so often another videotape of a young black man or woman being gunned down by a uniformed police officer makes its way onto the internet, always followed by few or no legal consequences. Given the racial composition of today’s professional football teams, prison-inmate wisecracks are not likely to be well received in an NFL locker room.
And so, in the spirit of Lone Star generosity and goodwill, here is another piece of Speaker Rayburn’s sage advice for McNair: “No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut.”