n the aftermath of George Floyd’s disturbing murder at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers that has ignited the world both literally and figuratively, the NFL has engaged in a refreshing, new tone: unification. Players of all skin colors have joined marches and donated millions of dollars to organizations fighting the increasingly clear atrocities of inequality in America. The black players, who comprise more than 70% of the league’s workforce, have shared their personal experiences encountering systemic racism, while their white counterparts have listened and publicly lent their support as allies.
The league and most of its teams have released statements or found other ways to publicly support Black Lives Matter. Some have been clunkier than others (hello, Washington) but the sentiment of unity and intolerance for racism has been omnipresent. Four years after Colin Kaepernick eloquently explained why he couldn’t honor an America where blacks were unjustly murdered by cops, when Anquan Boldin, Richard Sherman and so many others echoed his sentiments, most of the NFL zeitgeist seems to finally understand.
That is, until New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees entered the fray. Asked by Yahoo Finance’s Daniel Roberts how he would feel about players kneeling during the national anthem this season in protest of police violence – a strong possibility given the current climate – Brees replied: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag.”
Oh Drew, how is it possible for someone so well-spoken and charitable to display such ignorance at this moment in history? How can your eyes be so tightly shut?
In the Yahoo interview, Brees explained that for him the American flag symbolizes his two grandfathers who fought in World War II. That is both valiant and fair. No one is asking Brees to change his perspective of America or think different thoughts as the anthem plays. But a different man, say Brees’s black former teammate Marques Colston, might also think of veterans, like his father who fought for this country only to face racism and discrimination upon returning home. Even so, sure, go ahead and honor your grandfathers. No one is asking Brees to do otherwise.
After a firestorm of anger from teammates, the broader NFL community and no less than LeBron James, Brees issued a lengthy statement of apology on Thursday morning in which he presented himself as an ally to the black community. Except nowhere in his apology did he recognize why his comments about this form of protest were so hurtful. He still is not publicly willing to admit that the flag offers different meanings to different people. That kneeling during the anthem is a legitimate more of protest.
How can Brees be so oblivious to the moment to hold on the outdated notion that the flag should only represent the military? How dare Brees tell another player how he’s supposed to react when he sees the flag? How dare he suggest that a black man or his white ally not be so overcome with despair and anger when he sees the flag and thinks of an America that murders George Floyd, Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others that he feels no choice but to protest the anthem.
Brees offered the same unenlightened sentiments about the protests disrespecting the military three years ago in the aftermath of Kaepernick’s original protest. It was not excusable back then either, but at least Brees was consistent with the NFL party line, which was rooted in the fear of alienating half of its fanbase. (Translation: Trump supporters.) However, trotting out the same narrative now when the root of Kaepernick’s protest is playing out, on repeat, before our very eyes and so clearly had nothing to do with the military, is both ignorant and dangerous. When players do take a knee this season, which we should expect, instead of being a leader to educate ignorant fans, Brees has just given them carte blanche to label the protesters something they’re not. This in turn may impact the league’s bottom line and inspire owners to make unsavory profit-first decisions that stifle this newfound coalescing. It’s OK to hold on to a tired false narrative: future Hall-of-Famer and All-American dad Drew Brees told me to!
Brees purporting the notion that the American flag solely represents only one aspect of the US is even more disturbing considering his unique life experience. Brees works in an NFL locker room surrounded by black men, many with their own stories of discrimination. (He ought to chat a little more with cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.) He also lives in New Orleans, a city with a rich history of police corruption, where more than 60% of the population is black. Brees literally has to make a concerted effort to ignore reality. He has to close his mind to not understand why a black American would see the flag today (and four years ago) and think about a different type of armed forces.
This past Tuesday saw an inspiring two-part Black Lives Matter movement designed to showcase empathy, education and action. In the first step, millions of people put black squares with the hashtag #TuesdayBlackOut on their social media accounts. Brees participated with the rest of the world. Easy enough. The second, much harder part was a deeper commitment to amplifying black voices and black causes, learning about the 13th amendment of the US Constitution and the mass criminalization of blacks that followed, letting the black experience embed into your soul. It appears Brees sat this one out.