McCOMB — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees inadvertently walked into the middle of the racial injustice debate last week.
Brees, asked what he thought about national anthem protests four years ago, said he would never agree with anyone disrespecting the American flag. He was referring to former quarterback Colin Kaepernick and several other players who knelt during the anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality against minorities.
After fierce criticism, including from his own teammates, Brees rightly apologized the next day. He promised to listen to others about discrimination and to play a role in improving race relations.
Saints fans had better hope this June dustup doesn’t cause any lingering team problems. Brees has a strong record as a community leader and a team leader. It is so strong that one misstep should not erase his contributions.
Ultimately, it’s up to the players. It’s in everyone’s best interest to act like adults and talk through their issues, because the Saints once again are one of the four or five best teams in the National Football League. It would be extremely shortsighted for teammates to bail out on their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Still, this was a very preventable error. After all, Brees did not directly answer the question about what he thought of the player protests. Here’s what he should have said:
“The players who knelt during the national anthem had a valid point. They saw then what more of us are seeing now — that there are too many cases of black people being treated unfairly and harmed by law enforcement. I just wish they had not chosen the anthem as their avenue of protest, because the song and the flag are unifying symbols for our country.”
The players who criticized Brees said they were stunned that he failed to understand that the kneeling protests had nothing to do with disrespecting the American flag. That is only partially true.
The protection of dissent and protest is cherished in America. It’s on display for all to see in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says the government can’t suppress freedom of speech. From a legal standpoint, NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem were exercising this right.
However, there was no better way to attract attention to injustice than refusing to stand for the National Anthem? Of course there was a level of disrespect involved, and Kaepernick’s comments after a 2016 preseason game made this clear:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” the San Francisco quarterback said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The real question is what happens when the regular season begins in September. If a substantial number of NFL players refuse to stand for the national anthem, they will invite boos from a large number of fans who appreciate the importance of American symbols in one of the few countries in the world that is always trying to better itself.
Athletes and other prominent minorities have found their voice to advocate for fairer treatment. But they must choose their battles wisely.
Those horrified by the death of George Floyd have said repeatedly that it’s time for action on racial injustice, and that the time for words or symbols has passed. But an NFL-wide player protest perceived as insulting to the flag or to the national anthem will be just another symbol — one that is guaranteed to alienate the very people the players are trying to reach.
Jack Ryan is editor and publisher of The Enterprise-Journal in McComb.