I just learned Houston Texans Owner Bob McNair passed away, and so I’m profoundly sad. I am sad because the Bob McNair I’m know was always nice and with a kind word for me. Moreover, he was just a regular guy. I write that, because much will be said about McNair the Houston Texans Owner, but I never thought of him that way. Let me explain.
The first time I heard of Bob was during my work to form the bid to bring the Super Bowl to Oakland. Then-Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb and I would meet and talk strategy of which game to go after, 2004, 2005, or 2006. After some talk, and preliminary discussions, “Mr. Bobb” as I call him to this day, and I set our sites on the 2004 Super Bowl.
At the time, Mr. McNair, as I also call him, was a guy described as an “energy business man” who was bidding to purchase the Houston NFL franchise for what would be the 32nd team of the league. Bob was involved in a race with Michael Ovitz to land that franchise right.
Now, my money was on Ovitz, and for good reason, at least for me: Michael had built a fortune in establishing his “Creative Arists Agency”, or CAA talent company. In building the careers of such house-hold names as Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, and Barry Levinson. He was also a mentor to Ervin “Magic” Johnson. And that was how I came to know him.
In 1996, as Economic Advisor to Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, I called Ovitz to gain his interest as a potential buyer for the Oakland Athletics. What Mr. Ovitz did was suggest that Magic would be a great person to approach, and so connected me with his then-agent Lon Rosen.
Mr. Rosen called me and I put him in touch with San Jose Developer John Kehriotis, and so make a long story short, we were in the middle of forming a deal that would have ended with Magic and Frank Robinson owning the Oakland A’s. What stopped it was that the then-current owners elected to retain ownership of the A’s, rather than sell, and John Kehriotis and Johnson and Robinson could not agree on ownership structure.
So, because of that experience, I was rooting for Michael Ovitz.
What happened is the stuff of history now. Mr. McNair sold his co-generation plants for a reported $1.4 billion; he then used that money to live out his dream of bringing pro football back to Houston. The original NFL team, the Houston Oilers, left what some call “Astro City” for Nashville, and became the Tennessee Titans. Houston without an NFL team just seemed, well, weird. Bob was determined to fix that. Bob did and by outbidding Michael Ovitz. Eventually, the NFL would award Houston the 2004 Super Bowl Mr. Bobb and I wanted.
As we watched every part of that business play-by-play from Oakland, Bob threw down the $750 million franchise fee like it was nothing, and then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked and worked to get Ovitz to match his offer. The best Michael could do was $550 million. The NFL dearly wanted to return to Los Angeles, but in the end, Bob McNair overcame Hollywood flash and hype with enough money to bring the 32nd NFL franchise to Houston.
With all that, I thought McNair was going to be a big talking Texan with an expensive suit and alligator shoes. I never thought I’d get the chance to meet him. Then came November 1st 1999 and the Monday of the Fall NFL Owners Meeting.
I was asked by then-NFL Senior Vice President Jim Steeg to give a presentation on Oakland’s plan to host a Super Bowl Game at that NFL meeting in Chicago, at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. It was a heady place to be. There was then-Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones walking through the lobby. I saw Oakland Raiders Owner Al Davis, who mistook me for a reporter before I reminded him of who I am. Steeg was kind enough to invite me to the Wilson Cocktail Party that Monday evening. It was my first league party of any kind, and so I was nervous. I planned to arrive early to get a feel for the event, and relax.
When I walked in to the room it was dark and empty, save for one person. A man in a grey suit at a table that was bathed in light. So, I walked over, introduced myself, and he said “I’m Bob McNair. Join me. I mean, it’s just us here!” So, I did.
My thought was “Wow, he’s a normal, nice guy. No flashy suit. No airs. Just..basic.” I congratulated him on landing the Houston franchise, and I recall him saying “that there was a lot of work to do.” Both of us talked about having no idea what to expect at the party. We were a couple of fish out of the water. I told him about Oakland’s bid and the plan I created – sorta testing my pitch with him, for which he gave me the thumbs up.
Then, someone from the NFL came over to greet him, Bob shook my hand and was whisked off, and I was by myself in the room. Eventually, that would change, and I wound up spending most of the time talking with Katie Blackburn and Dean Spanos. Its nice to see how they’ve grown up in and with the NFL, but I digress.
A few years later, and thanks to NFL Executive Vice President Joe Browne, I wound up covering the NFL Draft, starting in 2005. In 2006, I was the first to cover the NFL Draft with a YouTube Channel, and there was Bob, and because his Texans had the 1st pick. Even though the hat I wore changed, Bob did not change the way he treated me; I interviewed him on video.
After the YouTube video interview, I tried to shake Bob’s hand, and he tried to give me a fist-bump, and the result was comical, to say the least. Two men trying to reconnect and laughing at the result.
Bob McNair went on to always greet me. Ask me how I was doing. Talk with me about the Oakland situation, both on camera and off camera. Grant me interviews without hesitation. In other words, just be a nice person who never made me feel that he perceived himself as better than me. Here’s my Bob McNair video playlist:
Many were wrong about Bob McNair and The NFL / National Anthem Issue
It’s for that reason, the whole deal with the National Anthem was upsetting to me. It was because anyone who runs a company or group, as I do and have, understands the term “don’t let the inmates guard the asylum.” It’s another way of saying that you as a business owner should not allow your company to be taken over by your employees because they don’t understand how to run the business beyond their own interests.
So, when I read that some NFL players, and a number of people around the country, believed Bob was racist for basically saying “don’t let the inmates guard the asylum” in talking about how the NFL should handle the National Anthem Protest issue, I was and am vocal in my disagreement. Bob didn’t mean anything that implied a desire to put down anyone because they were black. I’ve been in a lot of circles, places where I’ve been the only black person in the room. I know what real racism feels like, and even institutional racism, and Bob never once treated me in any way close to that.
The problem was borne of the NFL’s overall racial makeup and the racially divisive words of our current President. Bob McNair’s backing Donald Trump was about power, not race. As one who’s worked in and covers politics, I understand that. He’s Republican, and at that, more “ Republican-lite” compared to Trump. I am a Democrat, but also a student of political power as is Bob.
What I’m saying is this: for those African American NFL Players to understand where a person like Bob McNair is coming from, you have to understand and appreciate what it means to cultivate power. And by that, I don’t mean money, I mean relationships. Treat everyone as the most important person in the room. Make them feel as equals in the room. That’s what Bob did.
But, you have to get into the room, and act like you belong there. Never assume racism where it’s not. Never believe a person’s racist just because they’re in a decision making role and they’re white. Had I done that, I’d have never walked over to meet Bob McNair. I did, and I’m the better for it.
I’m going to miss you a lot Bob. Rest in peace.
Zennie Abraham is the CEO of Zennie62Media