First, I want to kick things off with a couple of comments/caveats.
Over the past few days, I struggled to wade into the waters of social media and the protests happening around this country. As a white, middle-class man, I didn’t feel like this was my time to speak, but rather amplify the voices of my black brothers and sisters that are hurting so badly – as they have for their entire lives. It’s so clear that these protests didn’t come out of nowhere. They are a response to generations of violence perpetrated against black men with no material repercussions.
I grew up in a family of police officers and have incredible respect for anyone who makes the decision to wear the badge because it carries immense weight and power. And with great power…well, you know the rest. It’s clear we need changes in how our police officers relate to and work with our communities. I don’t know the answer and don’t pretend to but this conversation needs to be had.
With that, some things I saw over the past few days deeply bothered me. Yesterday, an NFL legend with immense social power decided to use his voice and retread some tired talking points by making the Black Lives Matter protests about “the flag.” So Drew Brees…let’s dive in, shall we?
First, I think it’s important you all have the opportunity to hear Brees’ comments in full.
Right off the bat, Brees is asked a fairly direct question that ties the current protests to Colin Kapernick’s protests a few years back and how the league will respond. Oddly, Brees IMMEDIATELY jumps to this protest being about disrespecting the flag.
No comments about solidarity with a community in pain. No words of empathy for the families impacted. And no acknowledgement of the events that have triggered these protests.
Just – the flag. Not only is this an ignorant, dismissive response, it demonstrates a vast disconnect Brees has between his privilege and the plague of racism that many are only JUST starting to appreciate.
The Danger of his Words
Brees plays in a largely black community in a league where the majority of players are black. As one of the most powerful men in that league, he used his platform to extend the NFL’s jingoistic verbiage that they (largely successfully) used to silence men that were attempting to elevate this conversation about police violence years ago. In the same way a parent may throw on SpongeBob to distract their child and have a moment of peace, Brees is jingling his keys with the hopes of shifting the narrative and not allowing these protests to make it to the NFL season.
Look, the NFL is a unique economic animal. They are a multi-billion dollar entity with widespread appeal across almost every age, gender, and racial demographic. Because of that, they take a conservative approach to wading into “politics” to avoid alienating any of their base. Particularly their key demographic – young to middle-aged white men.
The Significance of the CBA
The NFL doesn’t want players speaking out because it hurts their bottom line. Endorsements fall through. Karens and Chads rage tweet on social media. Fox News and the like rake them over the coals. Fortunately for their owners, they have negotiated a wildly favorable CBA that minimizes the financial implications of cutting a player by minimizing requirements around guaranteed money in contracts. This significantly mitigates any long-term political power an individual player can carry because if you’re a headache, they silence you. They take away your platform.
So what makes Brees’ words so impactful? The QBs in the NFL may be some of the most powerful athletes in all of sports. With so few “franchise” QBs, you can’t simply push them to the side because of their outsized value to an organization. A franchise QB can turn an organization around and winning in this league typically means dollars on the bottom line. And lots of them.
When a QB like Brees uses his privilege to silence black men demonstrating respectfully and peacefully, he is simply a puppet for NFL owners. And let’s be clear – NFL owners don’t want these protests carrying into the fall. As much as their PR-friendly statements over the past few days may suggest.
Unsurprisingly, Brees caught the ire of many his teammates and athletes across American professional sports. Again, I think it’s important you have a chance to read his words for yourself before I offer my take.
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I would like to apologize to my friends, teammates, the City of New Orleans, the black community, NFL community and anyone I hurt with my comments yesterday. In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused. 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. They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy. 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. This is where I stand: I stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference. I condemn the years of oppression that have taken place throughout our black communities and still exists today. I acknowledge that we as Americans, including myself, have not done enough to fight for that equality or to truly understand the struggles and plight of the black community. I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the black community in this movement. I will never know what it’s like to be a black man or raise black children in America 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. I am sick about the way my comments were perceived yesterday, but I take full responsibility and accountability. 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. For that, I am very sorry and I ask your forgiveness.
You need only look at the comment section to see how his “apology” was received. As expected, responses generally group along racial lines. It’s almost like a stock image and words with no action behind them wasn’t enough to win people back, Drew. Weird…
My biggest issue with this apology is how Brees frames himself – the victim of misunderstanding. He mentions multiple times “I’m not the enemy.” This isn’t a statement from someone who learned a lesson. Brees is attempting to shift focus away from him because he doesn’t want to be a part of the problem.
But he is. And he will be until he uses his platform to amplify his brothers-in-arms that have been leading this conversation for years. While Brees (and many white QBs in the NFL) paint themselves as leaders of men on the field, they’re happy to sit on the sidelines on the issues that REALLY matter.
Where Brees Goes From Here
But if we’ve learned anything over the past few weeks, it’s that passive support is not enough. We as a society have allowed these conversations to die over and over again. Often, it’s because we as white people are uncomfortable having these critical conversations that call out our biases. By not actively working against the social issues that have resulted in the deaths of countless young black men over the years, we provide passive support for the system as it stands today.
Generally speaking, I like Drew Brees. He’s a talented guy on the field and has done incredible work to help rebuild New Orleans post-Katrina. I don’t think he’s a “bad guy.” But there’s a fundamental flaw in how he’s viewing the world and his role in the current environment.
So Drew – I agree with part of your final statement. I hope you listen. Learn that this isn’t about disrespecting the flag. Understand what the flag means to so many, including your teammates.
But when it comes time, don’t remain silent. Offer your support – use your platform to advance this cause. If you don’t, you’re putting your boot on the neck of people just begging to breathe.
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