Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have something in common beyond their one Super Bowl triumph: both men come from families with strong ties to the military.
But it was Brees who elicited widespread criticism this week when, during an interview with Yahoo Finance, he made controversial comments about the Colin Kaepernick-led demonstration, where NFL players took a knee to protest police brutality of minorities.
In his comments to Yahoo, Brees paid lip service to equality with well-worn statements such as, “God created us all equal” “love your neighbor as yourself” “find ways to work together, and “move the country forward” – all pretty textbook stuff. But where Brees stumbled was when Yahoo reporter Dan Roberts asked him about Kaepernick’s kneeling protest and the probability that protest will come back in the upcoming season. There, Brees drew a line explaining, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America, or our country. 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. 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 60’s and everyone 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 to the flag with your hand over your heart is it shows unity. It shows we are all in this together we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.”
The blowback to Brees’ comments was swift, with many of the harshest criticisms coming from his own teammates. But given the opportunity to reflect, Brees doubled down, explaining in a follow up statement to 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.”
Bringing up his grandfathers’ service in both statements, it’s clear that Brees views kneeling as an affront to military service. Yet, Kaepernick’s protest was never about the military. Indeed, it was Retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer who first convinced Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem, believing that to be a more respectful compromise than sitting on the bench, which Kaepernick had been doing up until that point.
Brees apparently disagrees, and he’s certainly not alone in that disagreement. But where Brees and others have chosen to draw that line is curious.
Military service in and of itself is not cause for reverence. For instance, we don’t honor the service of the Nazi soldiers from World War II because they were fighting on the side of Hitler’s great evil. Conversely, we passionately honor the service of the allied forces, and we do so because of what they were fighting for. In other words, it’s not the “what” – it’s the “why”. Brees’ grandfathers, alongside countless brave soldiers before and since, have heroically laid their lives on the line to defend our American ideals – things like liberty, freedom, justice and equality. Those ideals are why they fight, and it’s why we venerate their service and sacrifice.
Therefore, if we can all agree that what we celebrate and hold most sacred is not necessarily the service, but service in pursuit of our ideals, then Brees’ grandparents and Kaepernick are actually fighting for the same cause. To be crystal clear, this is not to compare football playing (a game) with military service (absolutely not a game) – I’m only talking about what both were/are aspiring to defend.
Alongside his feelings about military service, Brees also talked about what else reverence to the flag meant to him, saying, “…it shows unity. It shows we are all in this together we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.” Here, Brees unintentionally revealed his privilege. Because, in fact, we aren’t all in this together, and that’s kind of the point. As it relates to the consequences of police brutality, again and again it’s black people who suffer those consequences. It’s people like Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, and so many other black Americans, and most recently, George Floyd.
White people experience a starkly different reality. When Dylan Roof stormed into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 and killed nine African Americans hoping to start a race war, he was calmly taken into custody by police. While in custody, Roof complained of being hungry and the cops even went to a nearby Burger King and bought the mass murderer a meal.
A more recent example of egregious white privilege was seen with the COVID-19 shut down, when angry whites stormed into state capital buildings in protest, many of them heavily armed. These protests weren’t met with tear gas, beatings, or punishment of any kind. In fact, the President even tweeted his support.
Speaking of President Trump, Drew Brees and his family were spotted at the LSU-Clemson Championship Game this past January, sitting alongside the President in a luxury box, happily chatting and posing for pictures. This is the same President that encouraged police brutality during his campaign, who called kneeling NFL players “son of a bitch“, who rolled back Obama-era efforts to investigate local police departments and issue public reports about their failings, who watched white supremacists march in Charlottesville and then declared there were good people “on both sides”.
This is also the same President who mocked war hero John McCain and publicly attacked 4-star generals, the same President who offended the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson and belittled Gold Star parents. None of this seemed to be a problem for Brees.
In Green Bay, thankfully, we have a different kind of leader. In the wake of Brees’ comments, Aaron Rodgers didn’t waste time posting a picture of himself and his Packers teammates locking arms to his Instagram account with the caption: 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 ourselves, and then turn word and thought into action. #wakeupamerica #itstimeforchange #loveoverfear❤️ #solidarity #libertyandjusticeforall #all
While not kneeling, the Packers players decided the gesture was their way of showing respect for the military, but also, solidarity with Kaepernick.
For Rodgers to re-emphasize that message this week, no doubt, meant a lot to many of his teammates. It also sets an example for the rest of white America, and maybe, most especially, for Drew Brees – it’s time for empathy, it’s time to listen, and it’s time to be part of the solution.
UPDATE: Drew Brees apologized via his Instagram.
UPDATE: The Packers released a video regarding the issue.
UPDATE: Drew Brees released a second apology via his Instagram.