By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The owner of the National Football League's Houston Texans apologized on Friday for using a figure of speech that referred to players as "inmates" as he discussed protests staged during the national anthem ahead of games.
An article in ESPN The Magazine, posted online on Friday, quoted Bob McNair as saying, "We can't have the inmates running the prison" as he exhorted other team owners in a meeting to consider how the protests could hurt the league's bottom line.
"I regret that I used that expression," McNair, 79, said in a statement. "I never meant to offend anyone and I was not referring to our players. I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally."
A number of players, mostly African-American, have knelt or raised fists during the "Star-Spangled Banner" to protest the treatment of minorities by police officers and racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Others have stood arm-in-arm in a show of solidarity.
President Donald Trump escalated the controversy in September, when he suggested owners should fire any "son of a bitch" who refused to stand for the anthem.
Trump has portrayed kneeling as an insult to the military and has kept up his attacks on Twitter, fueling further demonstrations from players.
The debate over the protests dominated a two-day meeting earlier this month in New York among league executives and team owners, where McNair is said to have made the comment. The league ultimately rejected Trump's call for protesting players to be punished.
ESPN reported that NFL executive Troy Vincent, a former player, told the owners he was offended by McNair's words, and that McNair apologized to him after the meeting.
McNair gave money to Trump's presidential campaign last year, as did many other NFL owners.
The protests began in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick, then a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, began sitting and later kneeling during the anthem to call attention to several high-profile shootings of unarmed black men in the United States.
Kaepernick was not signed by any team after becoming a free agent following the 2016 season. He has filed a claim of illegal collusion against the league's owners.
A Seton Hall University poll on Friday found 47 percent of respondents believe the NFL should order players to stand during the anthem, while 42 percent do not.
Most people, by a 55-to-37 percent margin, also said it was inappropriate for Trump to launch a recent petition on the Republican National Committee website saying the players should stand.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Dan Grebler)