In October 2017, NFL owners met behind closed doors to discuss the League’s response to the “Anthem” controversy, “to kneel, or not to kneel,” that was the question. During the meeting, Houston Texans’ owner Robert McNair spoke up in support of imposing a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. He had the temerity to use an uncommon variant of a well-known, everyday idiom to make his point.
“We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” he said.
The players were not amused.
Some players claim to have been offended at being referred to as “inmates.” Jesse Jackson complained that the comments reflect a “plantation mentality.” But the kerfuffle may display a misunderstanding of, or lack of familiarity with, a common idiom on both McNair's and the players' part, than anything so insidious.
The players' high school English teachers could be offended by the fact that the players mistook what was clearly a variant of an innocent, common idiom that should never be taken literally. And McNair’s high school English teacher might be offended by the fact that he mangled the more common form of the idiom, which despairs of inmates running the “asylum,” not the prison.
Of course it’s not nice to call someone a lunatic either, but as is the case with most idioms, invoking it doesn’t suggest (and shouldn’t be taken as suggesting) that the players are literally “inmates” of an asylum, much less a prison.
The players should not be surprised that the idiom was used against them. They join a long line of powerful entertainment luminaries at the receiving end of the idiom, many of whom went on to gain the power, influence and monetary rewards they sought. The idiom itself appears to have originated, or at least come into widespread public awareness, among entertainment executives critical of entertainers using their star power to exercise more influence over their talents and take a bigger piece of the pie.
Today’s NFL players are not the first sports figures to be called “inmates.” It is not even the first time the NFL Players’ Union have been figuratively called “inmates.”
In 1982, during the first NFL strike that would ultimately win a 55% profit-sharing arrangement for the players, NFL Hall of Famer Hank Stram said:
. . . the players could never win their demand for a percentage of gross receipts, because “you can’t let the inmates run the asylum.”[i]
Hank Stram was ultimately proved wrong.
In 1978, aging former tennis star Jack Kramer worried about the effect of latter-day superstardom on the unity of professional tennis.
The inmates run the asylum.
“The superstars like Connors, Borg and Vilas are laws unto themselves,” said Kramer, who turned pro in 1947 after winning his second straight Forest Hills. “They play exhibitions whenever they so please, or simply skip a tournament altogether.
“Someone likie Nastase, who was suspended at Wimbledon, takes advantage of the lack of central control and continues to play team tennis.[ii]
Jack Kramer was ultimately proven wrong.
In 1975, NBA coaching legend Pat Riley, then a player, made waves when the Lakers traded him to Phoenix and he refused to play out his option and rejected a new contract that would reportedly have given him a 25% raise.
Veteran guard Pat Riley, acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers this week, was suspended Wednesday by the Phoenix Suns for failure to report to the National Basketball Association club. “We are not going to let the inmates run the asylum,” said Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ general manager.[iii]
Also in 1975, sportswriter Bill Conklin criticized the Major League Players’ Union when they took a poll to rate umpires.
It was preposterous. Here again were the inmates running the asylum.[iv]
The idiom, like many pop-culture trends, may have originated in Hollywood. It first came into widespread public use during the time when the star system started to destroy the old-time studio system. Studio heads bemoaned the newfound power and influence of big-name stars.
But the boss of another [Hollywood] studio commented: “The star system has got way out of hand. We’ve let the inmates run the asylum and they’ve practically destroyed it.”[v]
Mt. Vernon Register-News (Mt. Vernon, Illinois), June 12, 1962, page 7.
The earliest, widely published example of the idiom I ran across was made in reference to comedian Red Skelton buying his own studio.
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) – Filmtown has been described as a place where the inmates run the asylum.
One inmate, Red Skelton, soon will be running his own little asylum – the first comedian since Charlie Chaplin to boast his own movie factory.[vi]
The expression had been kicking around Hollywood for awhile. It was well-known enough in 1952 that Arthur Loeb Mayer (not Louis B.) planned to call his book on the history of the film industry, “The Inmates Have Taken Over the Asylum.” Perhaps it is a sign that the expression was not yet widely known that he (or the publishers) changed the title to “Merely Colossal.”[vii]
The earliest known example of the expression[viii] dates to perhaps the earliest example of film artists wresting control of the means of production from the businessmen’s hands. Upon hearing the news that D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were pooling their wealth and talent to form United Artists studio in 1919, Richard Rowland, then the head of Metro Pictures Corporation, is said to have remarked:
“The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”[ix]
But regardless of its point of origin, today’s NFL players should take heart in the fact that many of the same people who were historically and metaphorically referred to as inmates of an asylum ultimately had the last laugh.
Only time will tell which inmates (and I mean that metaphorically), players or owners, will wind up running the NFL asylum.
Readers of this article might also enjoy:
[i] The Windsor Beacon (Windsor, Colorado), September 23, 1982, page 4.
[ii] Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina), August 20, 1978, page 11.
[iii] Panama City News-Herald (Panama City, Florida), November 6, 1975, page 22.
[iv] Clovis News-Journal (Clovis, New Mexico), February 2, 1975, page 16.
[v] The Iola Register (Iola, Kansas), June 12, 1962, page 1.
[vi] The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), June 24, 1960, page 5.
[vii] The Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), December 30, 1952, page 19 (“Arthur Mayer’s new book about Hollywood, “Merely Colossal,” originally was titled, “The Inmates Have Taken Over the Asylum.” Mr. Mayer also wanted his author’s listing as “not Louis B.”.
[ix] Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1926, page 795.