Drew Brees’ anthem comments, met with backlash and 'F-you' chants in his own city, offer preview for NFL season

While many leaders, writers and critics have called for unity to deal with police brutality and racism, it’s clear emotions in this country remain raw, and the path to understanding each other remains murky.

The recent contention surrounding Drew Brees is the latest example of that.

On Tuesday, the New Orleans Saints’ star quarterback joined other celebrities in posting a black square on social media. He did it as part of the Blackout Tuesday movement supporting protests against police brutality.

On Wednesday, Brees drew criticism when Yahoo Finance’s Daniel Roberts asked how the NFL should respond if players began kneeling again during the national anthem. Brees essentially repeated the comments he made in 2016 that criticized since-blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America,” Brees said, before noting that he becomes overwhelmed when thinking of the sacrifices many Americans — including his two grandfathers, who fought in World War II — made for the country.

Drew Brees drew the ire of some of his teammates, including Michael Thomas. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Drew Brees drew the ire of some of his teammates, including Michael Thomas. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Brees’ conscious decision to conflate kneeling with disrespecting the flag, all while invoking a U.S. military that has nothing to do with the anthem protests, points at the heart of the disconnect that exists in America.

Seven hours after Brees’ comments, one of his black teammates, Marcus Davenport, defended him, noting that Brees wasn’t talking about the current protest, the riots or “anything besides his feelings on kneeling during the national anthem.” Brees apologized early Thursday, with a lengthy and candid social media post.

But by then, the damage was done, as the quarterback’s failure to read the room caused widespread frustration among many black players and even had fans in his own city chanting “F--- Drew Brees.”

They know a portion of Americans probably agrees with Brees, despite the fact those players made it clear their only intention was to peacefully bring awareness to the issue of police brutality.

The litany of players who spoke out against his comments Wednesday is the biggest hint of a division that may soon hit NFL locker rooms. Shortly after Brees’ comments touched off a firestorm, Saints stars Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Alvin Kamara — all of whom are black — hinted at their frustration. None of them named Brees explicitly, but some unfollowed him on social media. Meanwhile other stars, both inside the sport (Richard Sherman and Tyrann Mathieu) and outside (LeBron James) did name him. They were later joined by Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was moved to tears as he explained why Brees’ comments were so hurtful.

It was the type of anger you rarely see NFL players express about other NFL players, who have a bigger sense of shared community than ever before. By invoking feelings of military disrespect where none is intended, Brees did the same thing that people who do not believe in the fight against police brutality often do in an attempt to delegitimize the entire cause.

Perhaps that’s what Brees doesn’t understand. Or he just disagrees with it.

In a follow-up interview Wednesday afternoon with ESPN’s Mike Triplett, Brees touted his support for his teammates and his philanthropic work.

“I love and respect my teammates, and I stand right there with them in regards to fighting for racial equality and justice,” Brees told ESPN. “I also stand with my grandfathers who risked their lives for this country and countless other military men and women who do it on a daily basis.

“Do I come across as someone who is not doing my absolute best to make this world a better place, to bring justice and equality to others, and hope & opportunity to those who don't have it? That's what I meant by actions speak louder than words. ... My ACTIONS speak for themselves.”

Indeed, Brees has donated a ton of money to charity during his 19-year NFL career, and was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2006 for his efforts. Only two months ago, he even donated $5 million to help Louisiana during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All that helped little Wednesday as his comments quickly drew widespread criticism, with some even coming from his own locker room. That’s problematic for him since quarterbacks have to lead and Brees’ voice carries tremendous weight in that locker room. Among his teammates, it remains to be seen how quickly he can mend those fences, though winning football games will help.

Regardless, Wednesday’s flare -up offers a sneak peek into the battle that will play out in the private spaces of 32 NFL locker rooms this fall, where those who fail to read the room — even if they insist they’re allies to the cause — risk ostracizing teammates.

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