Drew Brees apologized Thursday, but the damage was done. The New Orleans Saints quarterback set off a firestorm a day earlier when he said that he’d “never agree” with someone who’d take a knee during the national anthem, calling such protests disrespectful to the military.
Brees was hammered by everyone from athletes across multiple sports to his own teammates and diehard Saints fans.
“Sucka,” said former Baltimore Ravens star Ed Reed. “F—- Drew Brees,” shouted protesters at a New Orleans rally. “Beyond lost,” tweeted San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman.
The debate over football players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality roiled the NFL in 2016 and 2017, with many owners, coaches and players — including Brees — arguing then that the Colin Kaepernick-inspired act was unpatriotic.
But in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the national outcry that followed, athletes like Malcolm Jenkins, a Brees teammate and one of the league’s most outspoken activists, former NBA star Stephen Jackson, a friend of Floyd’s, and others have made it clear: If you’re not with us, you’re hurting the cause.
“People who share your sentiments are the problem,” Jenkins said in a video response to Brees. “If you ain’t down with us, then you on the other side,” Jackson said in a message in which he pleaded with black athletes to hold their white teammates “accountable.”
The racial tension in the NFL has erupted against a national backdrop of peaceful protests, bloody riots and sports leagues shuttered by COVID-19 struggling to find the safest way to resume operations.
The prospects of a resurgence of anthem protests adds another wild card to the already complicated question of what American sports will look like, post-coronavirus.
Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate and one of three players to kneel in 2019, told TIME that it was a “fluid” situation when asked if he would protest again next season.
“If something was done that would make police officers know they are not above the law, that they would be brought to justice for shedding innocent blood, there will be no need to take a knee,” said, Reid, a free agent safety who was released by the Carolina Panthers in March. “Taking a knee was simply us peacefully using our platform to shine a light on injustice. Without injustice, there’s no protest.”
Teams and players have spent the last week addressing Floyd’s death, publicly and privately. The Chicago Bears held a 130-person team meeting over Zoom to discuss their experiences with racism and police brutality. Quarterbacks like Carson Wentz and Aaron Rodgers have made statements. Wentz called for institutional racism to stop, while Rodgers urged America to “wake up.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also issued a social awareness statement addressing the protests around the country, but faced criticism for not referencing racism or police brutality. Texans receiver Kenny Stills, who has taken a knee during the anthem, tweeted, “save the (BS).”
The NFL has struggled in recent years with race-related issues.
The league partnered with the Players’ Coalition to donate millions toward social justice initiatives and teamed up with rapper Jay-Z for an “Inspire Change” campaign, but critics have said the changes ring hollow due to its handling of Kaepernick, who last played in the NFL in 2016.
But the league has also drawn scrutiny for its handling of player protests. In 2017, President Trump urged the NFL to fire any player who protested. A proposed plan to fine and suspend those who didn’t stand for the national anthem was shelved in July 2018, and a month later, Trump blasted players for taking a knee. Beyond the White House, some fans vowed to not watch an NFL game again.
The last time protests erupted in the NFL, the league’s public image took a hit. Television ratings fell 9.7% and 8% in 2017 and 2016, but experts said it was hard to know how the debate around protests fully affected viewership. Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass said in 2017 that the Ravens’ protest earlier in the season was a “factor” for the number of no-shows at the team’s stadium.
It’s possible, however, the reaction could be different this time around. A study from Monmouth University this week found that 57% of Americans believe police are more likely to use excessive force against black people — up from 34% in 2016.
Within NFL circles, there seems to be a better understanding of why Kaepernick first protested.
“We owe a tremendous amount to him for sure,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said on The Ringer’s “Flying Coach” podcast.
“I vividly remember the Colin Kaepernick conversations,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said in a statement. “‘Don’t ever disrespect the flag’ was the phrase that I heard over and over again. This idea that players were kneeling in support of social justice was something some people couldn’t wrap their head around.”
Former league spokesman Joe Lockhart went as far as to write in an editorial that the Minnesota Vikings should sign Kaepernick. (Floyd was a Minnesota resident.)
As for Brees, some like teammates Michael Thomas and Demario Davis have accepted his apology. Posting on Instagram, Brees said he “completely missed the mark” and added his comments were insensitive.
“They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy,” Brees said. “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.”