Drew Brees isn’t just tone deaf. He’s willfully ignorant.
While other white athletes are carefully reflecting on the racism that remains woven tightly into the fabric of this country and their part in it, Brees is doubling down on the lie that has given so many people cover to ignore and discredit Colin Kaepernick’s protests. He’s perpetuating the misinformation that Kaepernick taking a knee was ever about anything besides police brutality against black and brown people.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees said during an interview with Daniel Roberts of YahooFinance that was posted Wednesday. “Let me just tell you what I see or what I feel when the national anthem is played and when I look at the flag of the United States. I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corps, both risking their lives to protect our country and to try to make our country and this world a better place.
“And in many cases, it brings me to tears, thinking about all that has been sacrificed,” he added. “Not just those in the military but, for that matter, those throughout the civil rights movements of the ‘60s and everyone and all that has been endured by so many people up until this point.”
What Brees said isn’t just disingenuous, it’s self-absorbed, the kind of entitled view only a white person can have. And with the country roiled by protests as it tries to reckon with the brutal consequences of its endemic racism, it’s dangerous.
In a searing video on Instagram, Malcolm Jenkins blasted his teammate’s ignorance and insensitivity.
“The whole country’s on fire and the first thing you do is criticize one’s peaceful protest,” said Jenkins, who raised his fist during the anthem in 2016 and 2017.
Truth is, the protests by Kaepernick and other players were never about the flag, the anthem or the military. There had been a string of high-profile cases of black and brown people dying at the hands of police, most of which had gone unpunished, and Kaepernick was trying to get white America’s attention.
To get us to care. That police treated people of color worse, yes. But also that our entire society is rigged against minorities, the ugly legacy of slavery and colonization.
But most of us didn’t believe it, and we didn’t want to hear about it. So Kaepernick’s protest – about as peaceful and respectful a gesture as someone who is pissed off can make – was twisted into something ugly. Something unpatriotic.
Something that didn’t have to be listened to and didn’t need to be addressed.
Four years later, we’re seeing just how foolish that was.
George Floyd is not the only black person killed by police since 2016 – far from it. But the sheer brutality of his death, a white officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd cries that he can’t breathe until his body goes limp, has resonated with America in a way we haven’t seen since the civil rights era.
And it is lost on no one that protesters, and even some law enforcement officials, are making the same gesture Kaepernick did.
“I was one of the people who initially thought Colin Kaepernick kneeling was disrespectful. I reacted to WHAT he was doing instead of WHY,” U.S. women’s hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield said in a post on social media Tuesday.
“Then I listened and learned,” Coyne Schofield continued. “So let me be absolutely clear: It was NEVER about the flag. It was never about my family members who serve(d). It wasn’t about me. It always was and IS about George Floyd and the countless others who came before him.”
That kind of introspection and honesty by white Americans is essential if we’re ever going to achieve that more perfect union. Making his first public comments since Floyd’s death, Aaron Rodgers took issue with Brees’ message, stating emphatically that the protests have “NEVER” been about the flag or the anthem.
“Listen with an open heart, let’s educate ourselves, and then turn word and thought into action,” Rodgers posted.
But Brees can’t be bothered.
Sure, he turned his Instagram page black and posted an inspiring quote from Nelson Mandela. Those symbolic gestures are rendered meaningless when a day later you twist the intent of a peaceful gesture such as taking a knee.
“By standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, it shows unity,” Brees said. “It shows that we are all in this together, we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.”
Brees has spent most of his life surrounded by teammates of all colors and backgrounds. He has played the bulk of his career for Sean Payton, probably the most enlightened white coach there is in the NFL. And still Brees said what he did.
“He don’t know no better,” teammate Michael Thomas said on Twitter.
But ignorance is no longer an excuse. And given the reaction there was on social media, it’s no longer going to be tolerated, either.
“If you don’t understand that other people’s experience is something totally different than you, then when you talk about the brotherhood and all this other bullshit, it’s just lip service. Or it’s only on the field,” Jenkins said, choking back tears.
“Because when we step off this field and I take my helmet off, I’m a black man walking around America. I’m telling you I’m dealing with these things and I’m telling you my community is dealing with these things, and your response to me is, `Don’t talk about that here, this is not the place.’
“Where is the place Drew?”
Our flag and our anthem are meant to be symbols of our nation’s most cherished ideals. To not understand, to prioritize the former over the latter that is the ultimate sign of disrespect.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.