NFL star Drew Brees stepped into a social media conflagration Wednesday, when he responded to a question from Yahoo Finance about possible protests in the upcoming football season. In an interview ostensibly about business franchising, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the New Orleans Saints said, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”
Brees explained that the flag reminds him of his grandfathers, both veterans of World War II, and “in many cases it brings [him] to tears.” He acknowledged that America is imperfect, “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, that we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.” It would be hard to think of a more anodyne, broadly shared attitude toward the flag.
Naturally, Twitter and other social media exploded with indignation and anger, from strangers as well as teammates and other prominent professional athletes. “WOW MAN!!” NBA superstar LeBron James wrote. “Is it still surprising at this point. Sure isn’t! You literally still don’t understand why Kap was kneeling on one knee?? Has absolute nothing to do with the disrespect of [the flag] and our soldiers (men and women) who keep our land free,” James wrote, referring to former quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s now-notorious kneeling during the National Anthem. In fact, Kaepernick specifically explained his actions as a sign of disrespect, or at least non-respect, for the flag. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said in 2016, when he began his protest.
“He don’t know no better,” tweeted Brees’s favorite Saints receiver, Michael Thomas. “We don’t care if you don’t agree and whoever else how about that.” Another teammate, safety Malcolm Jenkins, went further: “Drew Brees, if you don’t understand how hurtful, how insensitive your comments are, you are part of the problem.” He added, “People who share your sentiments, who express those and push them throughout the world, the airwaves—are the problem. And it’s unfortunate, because I considered you a friend. I looked up to you . . . But sometimes, you should shut the fuck up.”
Former NFL player Ed Reed called Brees a “sucker” and a “punk”—the ultimate disrespect in the vernacular of pro athletes. Current player Tyrann Mathieu, who attended LSU, reminded Brees: “You represent New Orleans, Louisiana. Don’t ever forget that!”
Mathieu’s bluster aside, New Orleans won’t soon forget all that Drew Brees has done for it. Even a cursory look at Brees’s actions over more than a decade indicates that the city, over 60 percent black, has special importance for the Saints’ quarterback. He signed with the team in 2006, soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and stated that he and his wife saw the rebuilding of the city as “a calling.” In 2007, he helped raise over $2 million and personally gave $250,000 to rebuild city schools, parks, and playgrounds. In late March, Brees and his wife Brittany pledged $5 million to Louisiana’s efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic; looking to provide 10,000 meals per day throughout the state, he focused the donation on children enrolled in meal programs, the elderly, and families in need. It was one of the largest donations from a private citizen during the pandemic, and Brees urged his followers to “all do our part, maintain hope, and get through this together.” The Brees Dream Foundation, focused on cancer patients, especially children and families in need, has contributed tens of millions to causes globally since its founding in 2003.
All less important, apparently, than Brees’s disagreement with anthem or flag protests. But Brees has not disputed the righteousness of protesting racial injustice. He’s not even opposed to kneeling as a rule; he led the team in kneeling together before a game (but not during the anthem) in the initial phase of protests against police brutality and racial injustice that Kaepernick initiated.
This morning, Brees apologized for his “insensitive” affirmation of respect for the United States and its most visible symbol. He has quickly learned that accumulated good works mean nothing in Twitter’s public-shaming chamber. The swiftness of his capitulation, and the apparently universal institutional support for his doing so, also suggest that merely affirming the United States now counts as an act of intolerance.
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