Bob McNair's insults, Texans' kneeldown change protest game for good

Before Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson ever got their shootout cooking, Texans-Seahawks was destined to be this week’s game to watch.

Never mind the combined 79 points and 854 yards passing between the two quarterbacks. The score and the stats would never had reflected the paradigm shift taking place as Texans players figured out how to react to their owner’s unconscionable comparison of them to prison inmates revealed last week.

After several collective protests were reportedly discussed — including taking the team logo decals off their helmets — the overwhelming majority of players decided to kneel in unison, and to do it during the national anthem.

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One way to read that: This was no contrived, league-approved, conveniently timed, appeasement-driven “unity” gesture. Instead, it was a show of more unity by one group of players toward one crystal-clear target than any team had shown since the player protests began.

It also was a wake-up call to the rest of the NFL players about who exactly was asking to “unite” with them.

Appropriate, since McNair’s repulsive words and equally feeble explanations (he tried two of them) turned up the heat under the Texans’ players, and those across the league and into other sports, like never before. There was no twisting of the players’ message into something anti-military, or anti-flag, or unpatriotic, no matter how hard many were sure to try.

(As a bonus, the two teams also showed the world that standing up for their identity and humanity did not “distract” them from performing their main task. The Texans and Seahawks put on a show the league hasn’t seen this season and would have to go a long way to match.)

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Now that the owners’ mask has been pulled off for good by ESPN.com’s revelations of the thoughts of McNair and his colleagues, the playing field for this fight has changed. It won’t go back. And it’s unlikely this is the end of the Texans players’ moves.

The middle ground owners had seemed to seek, allowing social activism while keeping officials, fans and advertisers happy, has collapsed. McNair ratted his fellow owners out.

Texans players seriously considered walking out of Friday’s practice along with two of their teammates, the day McNair’s “inmates” comment went public. Tackle Duane Brown repeated to reporters after Sunday’s game that Saturday’s players meeting with McNair “didn’t go too well.” Coach Bill O’Brien didn’t hesitate when asked about the protest, declaring himself in support of their decisions “100 percent.”

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After the owners’ meetings with players two weeks ago, with tentative plans for another this week and with some expectation that either Colin Kaepernick or Roger Goodell or both would take part, the gulf between the sides is wider than ever.

That’s expected when, not long after 49ers CEO Jed York described the players as “the most important partner that we have,” one of his actual partners is now known to see them as a bunch of incarcerated felons who need to be kept in their place.

Proof positive that the owners don’t think of them as partners, or as important.

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The venue for Sunday’s Texans gesture was practically destined to be: the home of the Seahawks, where players — Michael Bennett, first and foremost — have engaged in the protests at every level since last season.

Several Seattle players continued their own sitdowns during the anthem, while across the field all but a handful kneeled. The Seattle fans reportedly did not shout and curse the players down, as has been the case in so many other stadiums this season.

Where the Texans’ players go from here is worth watching, especially because they weren’t in full agreement on how to proceed even after a direct insult from the owner.

The only thing for sure is that they’re all playing a different game now, much different than what it was before prisons and inmates entered the conversation.

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