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Drew Brees and the national anthem: Revisiting the Saints QB’s controversial anti-kneeling comments

Written By Dan Bernstein

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Saints quarterback Drew Brees underestimated the implications of making an anti-kneeling statement at the height of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism earlier this summer.

He told Yahoo Sports in June that any NFL player who took a knee during the national anthem was “disrespecting the flag of the United States’ and “our country.”

“Is everything right with our country right now? No, it is not,” Brees said in the interview. “We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together, we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.”

Players around the sports world, including some Saints teammates, harshly criticized Brees for not empathizing with the unique set of issues Black people in the U.S. face. They felt his comments were not only unhelpful to their cause, but also directly undermined their efforts to explain why pointing out racial inequality during the anthem has nothing to do with their level of respect for America.

George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, had been killed by Minneapolis police nine days earlier, so Brees’ words struck a particularly raw surface for non-white athletes.

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Brees apologized for his remarks following the backlash his interview received. His about-face didn’t end the matter, though, instead sparking a round of anger from conservative pundits who were upset he backtracked from his initial stance.

Comments Brees likely didn’t expect to get much attention became a national story for weeks.

What did Drew Brees say about the national anthem?

When asked by Yahoo for his opinion on possible NFL protests during the national anthem in 2020, Brees was adamant he would not support any gesture meant to call out inequality in the U.S. while the song played.

“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees said.

NFL players have knelt during the anthem as a form of protest since 2016 and are expected to continue the movement in some form this season. The purpose of kneeling is to use a powerful platform to argue the ideals of the nation — namely the right to be treated to fairness and justice regardless of skin color — are still not being fulfilled. It’s a call to better society to meet American values, not a rejection of the country’s principles.

Why did Drew Brees speak out against anthem kneeling?

Brees said his opinion came from his ties with the U.S. military — a common thread among those who are against anthem protests. He said his grandparents fought in World War II and kneeling for the anthem would disrespect their service and sacrifices to the country.

“I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corp,” Brees said. “Both risking their lives to protect our country and to try to make our country and this world a better place. So every time I stand with my hand over my heart looking at that flag and singing the national anthem, that’s what I think about.”

49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who was one of many NFL players frustrated by Brees’ remarks, took specific aim at the way Brees framed his argument around military service.

That line of thinking, Sherman said, missed the point of why people decide to kneel.

“Guarantee you there were black men fighting along side your grandfather but this doesn’t seem to be about that,” Sherman wrote on Twitter. “That uncomfortable conversation you are trying to avoid by injecting military into a conversation about brutality and equality is part of the problem.”

Did Drew Brees apologize for his anthem comments?

Brees called the negative response to his comments “crushing” and said he didn’t mean to offend teammates and players around the NFL.

Regardless of his personal perspective, Brees needed to walk back his statement to avoid being completely ostracized by the league. Based on replies from teammates, it appeared he was in danger of losing the support of his own locker room.

Brees issued a lengthy apology on Instagram the day after his Yahoo interview went live.

“I am sick about the way my comments were perceived yesterday, but I take full responsibility and accountability,” Brees’ post read in part. “I recognize that I should do less talking and more listening. … When the black community is talking about their pain, we all need to listen. For that, I am very sorry and I ask your forgiveness.”

 

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I would like to apologize to my friends, teammates, the City of New Orleans, the black community, NFL community and anyone I hurt with my comments yesterday. In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused. In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country. They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy. Instead, those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character. This is where I stand: I stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference. I condemn the years of oppression that have taken place throughout our black communities and still exists today. I acknowledge that we as Americans, including myself, have not done enough to fight for that equality or to truly understand the struggles and plight of the black community. I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the black community in this movement. I will never know what it’s like to be a black man or raise black children in America but I will work every day to put myself in those shoes and fight for what is right. I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy. I am sick about the way my comments were perceived yesterday, but I take full responsibility and accountability. I recognize that I should do less talking and more listening…and when the black community is talking about their pain, we all need to listen. For that, I am very sorry and I ask your forgiveness.

A post shared by Drew Brees (@drewbrees) on Jun 4, 2020 at 5:22am PDT

How did Saints teammates react to Drew Brees’s comments?

Brees received a storm of responses from fellow athletes, teammates included, blasting his take on the way Black people have chosen to protest their most pressing concerns.

Among those replies were words from top Saints receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara.

“I’ve had a day to digest the comments that Drew made,” wrote Kamara on Twitter. “I was disappointed and hurt. We talked and I explained to him where he dropped the ball and he understood.”

Safety Malcolm Jenkins weighed in more bluntly. The Saints newcomer has been an NFL leader on social justice issues over the past few years and was unhappy Brees decided to pan the movement.

“It’s unfortunate because I considered you a friend,” Jenkins said in a since-deleted Instagram video. “I looked up to you. You’re somebody who I had a great deal of respect for. But sometimes you should shut the f— up.”

Since then, it seems Brees has patched up some of the broken relationships in his locker room. Jenkins said last month the team had moved forward via productive discussions on racial issues.

While there could be lingering resentment toward Brees behind the scenes, the Saints have decided to publicly back their quarterback entering the 2020 campaign.

“Yeah, I think if anything, the team was probably closer for it because we’ve had to have tough conversations and oftentimes, those adversities or those intimate kind of engagements, bring people closer, and I think this is no exception,” Jenkins told reporters in August.

Drew Brees’ comments create debate

NFL anthem protests have long been carbohydrates for conservative media outlets looking to play up what they believe is a culture war in the U.S. between political correctness and traditions.

So when Brees apologized for his comments about kneeling, it was an irresistible order of unlimited breadsticks for Fox News, which spent the following weeks decrying the walk-back as caving to a liberal agenda. 

Despite often mocking Black athletes for offering viewpoints on social issues — Fox host Laura Ingraham once told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” — key figures of the channel were outraged Brees wasn’t allowed to express his non-sports thoughts without consequences.

Ingraham said Brees was a person of worth who deserved to be heard, calling critical responses to the quarterback “totalitarian conduct.” She was in turn called out by the athletes she’d previously tried to silence.

Will Drew Brees’ comments hurt the Saints on the field?

The Saints unified behind Brees as the offseason progressed and the quarterback held private conversations with his teammates expressing remorse for implying kneeling for the anthem was an anti-American gesture. There’s no indication, then, that the incident will ruin on-field chemistry this year, even if it’s possible certain players remain quietly unhappy with what happened.

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