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Drew Brees Still Hasn't Learned

Four years after Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality and racial injustice, Drew Brees has not learned that his American experience is not everyone's.

Two quotes. One speaker. See if you can spot the difference.

“I agree with his protest, I DON'T agree with his METHOD... When I look at that flag, I think about [my grandfathers], too. I think about a lot of things. Like when I stand and listen to the national anthem with my hand over my heart, there is emotions that well up inside of me.”

Drew Brees, in a tweet and then to reporters, August 2016

“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country. … 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. … Is everything right with our country right now? No, it’s not. We still have a long way to go. 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.”

Drew Brees, interview with Yahoo! Finance, 2020

Do you see it? Sure, he said a little more about his grandfathers, and he used the word “disrespecting,” but those aren’t the big difference. The big difference is the date.

Brees has a right to stand for the flag and think about his grandfathers. This is his country as much as anyone’s, and he can love it as much as he wants and show that love as he chooses. But he had four years to think about Colin Kaepernick’s protest … four years to watch other Black athletes join him and support him … four years to see that Kaepernick asked U.S. Army Green Beret Nate Boyer the most respectful way to protest (kneel, don’t just sit, Boyer told him) … four years to read about the deaths of Philando Castile and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and others at the hands of police … four years to ask his teammates about their own experiences with law enforcement …

Four years, and Brees apparently learned nothing. That is why he faced minimal backlash four years ago and got excoriated this week. He still claimed they are being “disrespectful” instead of understanding why they feel disrespected.

To his credit, Brees apologized Thursday: “I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country,” he wrote on Instagram. “They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy.” Now Brees, one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league, can examine why he said what he did this week.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium

If Brees had listened with an open mind for the last four years, he would have seen that his American experience is not everyone’s. He would have realized that making anthem protests about respect for the military is just a scaled-down, philosophical version of using troops to clear out peaceful protesters. It is another way to tell people to shut up and admire the USA.

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You can’t tell a group of historically oppressed people that you understand how they feel, but they have to say it on your terms. That means you don’t really understand. It means you don’t care enough. Why should Black Americans have to pause and salute Drew Brees’s grandfathers before talking about how their own relatives have been treated? Why is his family’s history more important than theirs?

Drew Brees doesn’t get to call that play. He did not seem to realize how condescending and offensive it is for a white person to tell Black people, “Hey, let’s all stand up and show unity here.”

The flag stands for the American idea, but also of a country that has not always lived up to its own view of itself. We are the country that declared “all men are created equal” but also did not guarantee women the right to vote for another 144 years. We are the country that helped defeat Nazi Germany but also created internment camps of Japanese Americans, a country of Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama that also has a long history of lynchings and Jim Crow laws … and, of course, fundamentally, we are a country built by men who espoused individual freedoms but kept slavery legal in many states. If you don’t see U.S. history as a big, complicated story that can both inspire and appall you, you’re not reading the whole book.

When Kaepernick first sat (and then kneeled) for the anthem, it was not new, but it was unusual for the time. Even some people who agreed with him and shared a heritage weren’t sure what to make of it. But now? After four years of this conversation? After seeing George Floyd’s murder and protests all over the country, Brees still looked at Kaepernick and thinks: But my grandfathers …?

For decades, one of the harshest adjectives you could use to describe a person is racist. It is the shortest, most damning character indictment, and of course, it should be—but because it is so damning, most of us tend to run away from it without a conversation.

We would all be better off if we thought “I’m not racist” less, and “How might I be insensitive about race?” more. It’s not a fun question to ask oneself. But we are each a product of our experiences until we consider the experiences of others, and this is an essential way to do that.

If Brees is uncomfortable seeing Black teammates kneel for the anthem, then that means the protests worked. The whole point is to make people like Drew Brees—smart, thoughtful people who believe in equality—uncomfortable. It’s not to get white nationalists to come around; it is to remind the rest of us that white nationalists still exist, often in prominent places. Brees does not get to tell people to find another, less invasive way of standing up for their rights. He doesn’t get to say, “Let’s talk about this later. First, stand up and view the country the way I do.”

And you know who gets that now? Drew Brees, a day later. In his apology, he wrote, “I recognize that I should do less talking and more listening ... and when the black community is talking about their pain, we all need to listen.”

Yes. Exactly. His comments were almost understandable in 2016. He was supposed to be uncomfortable then. He was supposed to start thinking about it. But in 2020? Nope. He needs to understand more now. That’s why so many Black athletes shouted him down this week. Four years can change a lot about America. You just have to pay attention.

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