As protesters seeking change fill the streets of U.S. cities after another death of a black man while in police custody, Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Wednesday reiterated his stance that kneeling during the national anthem is “disrespecting the flag,” words that drew sharp criticism from inside his locker room and among NFL colleagues and other high-profile athletes.
Thursday morning, Brees posted a lengthy apology on Instagram, in the caption of a photo of a white and black hand clasped together.
“In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I’ve caused," Brees wrote. “In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country.”
Brees wrote that he takes “full responsibility and accountability” for his comments, stands “with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality” and supports “the creation of real policy change that will make a difference.”
“I will never know what it’s like to be a black man or raise black children in America,” Brees continued, “but I will work every day to put myself in those shoes and fight for what is right. I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy.”
During a video interview Wednesday with Yahoo Finance On the Move, Brees was asked how the NFL “will and should respond” if players kneel during the anthem this year in the wake of nationwide protests over George Floyd, who died while in police custody last week in Minneapolis. Four years ago, then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem before games in an effort to raise awareness about social and racial injustice, particularly to protest police brutality against people of color. His act drew a wide range of reactions, including condemnation from President Donald Trump.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees, 41, said Wednesday. “Let me just tell you what I see, or what I feel, when the national anthem is played, or 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.
Stay updated on the Buccaneers
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“So every time I stand with my hand over my heart looking at that flag and singing the national anthem, that’s what I think about. And in many cases it brings me to tears, thinking about all that has been sacrificed. Not just those in the military, but for that matter those throughout the civil rights movements of the ‘60s, and all that has been endured by so many people up until this point. And 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 for the flag with your hand over your heart is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better and that we’re all a part of the solution.”
Several other NFL players joined Kaepernick in kneeling during that 2016 season. Kaepernick and the 49ers parted ways after that season, and he hasn’t played since.
Last week, as protests began in Minneapolis and spread across the country, Kaepernick set up a fund to help provide legal assistance to demonstrators in Minneapolis through his Know Your Rights Camp charity.
The comments of Brees — the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, and a former NFL Man of the Year for his off-the-field contributions — drew criticism around the league from teammates and colleagues.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas showed his feelings on Twitter.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers posted a rebuttal to Brees’ comments on his Instagram account:
“A few years ago we were criticized for locking arms in solidarity before the game. It has NEVER been about an anthem or a flag. Not then. Not now. Listen with an open heart, let’s educate each other, and then turn word and thought into action.”
Thomas retweeted Rodgers’ statement on his feed.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins, who rejoined the Saints this offseason, shared an emotional response to Brees’ comments on his social media accounts.
“Drew, unfortunately you’re somebody who doesn’t understand their privilege,” Jenkins said in a video posted on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. “You don’t understand the potential you have to actually be an advocate for the people you call brothers. You don’t understand the history and why people like me, people of my skin color whose grandfathers fought for this country, who served, and I still protested, not against the national anthem, but what was happening in America, and what the fabric of this country stands for.
“If you don’t understand that other people experienced something totally different than you, then when you talk about the brotherhood, and all this other (expletive), it’s all just lip service or it’s only on the field. Because when when I step off this field and I take my helmet off, I’m just a black man walking around America, and I tell you I’m dealing with these things. I’m telling you my communities are dealing with these things, and your response to me is, ‘Don’t talk about that here. This is not the place?’ Then where is the place, Drew?”
“Even though we’re teammates, I can’t let this slide."
Jenkins, who participated in peaceful demonstrations in Philadelphia this week, is one of the co-founders of the Players Coalition, an organization of professional athletes focused on social justice and racial equality.
More NFL players also sharply criticized Brees for his remarks.
NBA superstar LeBron James also weighed in.
“WOW MAN!!” James replied on Twitter. “Is it still surprising at this point. Sure isn’t! You literally still don’t understand why (Kaepernick) was kneeling on one knee?? Has absolute nothing to do with the disrespect of (the flag) and our soldiers (men and women) who keep our land free.”
Veteran 49ers safety Richard Sherman posted on Twitter that Brees is “beyond lost.”
“Guarantee you there were black men fighting along side your grandfather but this doesn’t seem to be about that,” he wrote. “That uncomfortable conversation you are trying to avoid by injecting military into a conversation about brutality and equality is part of the problem.”
Twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty, defensive backs for the Patriots, called Brees’ comments “a disgrace” on Twitter:
“To speak about your grandfathers as if there weren’t black men fighting next to them. Those men later returned to a country that hated them. Don’t avoid the issue and try to make it about a flag or the military. Fight like your grandfathers for whats right!”
Brees attempted to clarify his comments later Wednesday, telling ESPN, “I love and respect my teammates, and I stand right there with them in regards to fighting for racial equality and justice. 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.”
Brees also said via a text message, “And I would ask anyone who has a problem with what I said to look at the way I live my life. 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.”
Earlier in the day, Brees posted a quote on Instagram saying, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they learn to hate, they can be taught how to love.” On Tuesday, Brees participated in #BlackoutTuesday, in which individuals posted black screens on their social media accounts in support of the protests over Floyd’s death.
The Saints are scheduled to open this season hosting the Bucs on Sept. 13.
Information from Times news services contributed to this report. Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.