Bob McNair, the chairman and chief executive of the Houston Texans, apologized Friday after a report said he declared "we can't have the inmates running the prison" during a meeting of NFL owners over what to do about players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.
McNair said he regretted using the expression and that he was "not referring to our players."
"I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally," McNair said. "I would never characterize our players or our league that way and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it."
Texans left tackle Duane Brown told reporters that he was "sickened" by McNair's words.
"I think the comments were disrespectful, I think it was ignorant, I think it was embarrassing," Brown said. "I think it angered a lot of players, including myself. We put our bodies and minds every time we step on the field. To use an analogy of inmates in a prison, I would say they're disrespectful."
Coach Bill O'Brien was asked about the situation, but wouldn't get into specifics about it as his team prepared for a game against the Seahawks.
"It's been addressed," he said. "I'm really here to talk about Seattle. I'm 100 percent with these players. Our coaching staff's 100 percent behind these players. If you have Seattle questions, that's what I'm here to talk about, with all due respect, and there's a lot of respect there. I just want to focus on Seattle. I think that's what our team is trying to do."
The comment was published in an ESPN The Magazine story about two recent days of meetings among owners, players and others to discuss the protests that have drawn the ire of President Donald Trump. Players, following the lead of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, say they kneel to protest social injustices, particularly against African-Americans. Trump has sharply criticized the protests and even called on NFL owners to fire players.
The meetings earlier this month did not result in a policy change that would require players to stand for the anthem.
Brown is the only Texan who has participated in the anthem protests, raising his fist at the end of the anthem at a game in New England last season. Brown, who returned to the team this week after holding out the first six games because of contract issues, hasn't done that since then.
"I can't stay quiet about it," he said. "As far as the protests are concerned I think people are going to feel how they want to feel about it. But this is bigger than just the protests. This is the view of player/owner relationship. This is how you view us. This is, 'you get out of line you're an inmate. We can't let you get out of line. We can't let you speak for yourself. We can't let you have your own beliefs.' That's what it feels like. So it's a bad situation."
Brown said he thought about walking out of the building when he first learned of the comments but decided not to. He added that the situation is not over and that they'll talk about it more as a team.
Receiver DeAndre Hopkins did not attend practice on Friday amid reports that he left because of the comment. O'Brien said he took a personal day.