Take all of him into account, and Drew Brees is among the most exceptional human beings in sports. If we agreed on criteria and a system to rank humanity, there is a chance he could finish No. 1. From his multifaceted efforts to revitalize New Orleans post-Katrina to the playground he helped build for children with disabilities, Brees epitomizes the character, benevolence and grace that people seek in a sports role model.
Yet he’s still capable of being a misguided, insensitive dolt.
For all his usual good intentions, he can still deface one aspect of the most important potential movement in this burning nation. He can still hurt people, even though he has dedicated much of his life to helping them.
It doesn’t make him a covert enemy. However, it does expose him as a sometimes ignorant, lazy thinker in desperate need of a broadened perspective. There is a single word for his kind, and keep it in mind as we proceed: Normal. Astonishingly, unconsciously, pervasively normal.
During an interview with Yahoo Finance, the New Orleans Saints quarterback answered a question about whether the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and the spotlight on the current wave of police brutality could result in NFL players protesting again during the national anthem. His response, and the ruckus it caused, drove a truck into the slow progress that Colin Kaepernick and social justice-seeking athletes have made in getting the public to understand the protest.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees said before explaining his personal reasons, including the military experiences of his grandfathers.
Just like that, the issue was grabbed from behind and tossed back, horse-collar tackle style, into the headache-inducing argument that exploded three years ago. Disrespecting the flag. Unpatriotic SOBs, as President Donald Trump labeled them. The comprehension of what Kaepernick knelt for — the demand for a solution to combat lethal police force against African Americans — had improved, sadly, because video surfaced of Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin putting a knee on the neck of Floyd, an unarmed black man, and keeping it there for nearly nine minutes, until his life ended.
Brees apologized for his comments in an expansive Instagram post Thursday morning, after receiving widespread blowback from his NFL peers and beyond.
The problem wasn’t that Brees dislikes protests during the national anthem. It makes millions uncomfortable and, well, that’s the very essence of a protest. The backlash against Brees for his comments was so strong and widespread because, in a disturbingly cavalier manner, he misrepresented why his colleagues protested, co-opting and mucking up their message once again and doing so at the worst possible time.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins, a prominent NFL activist and Brees’ new teammate, captured the disappointment in two social media posts Wednesday, including a video that he later deleted.
“Our communities are under siege, and we need help,” Jenkins said. “And what you’re telling us is don’t ask for help that way, ask for it in a different way. I can’t listen to it when you ask that way. We’re done asking, Drew. And people who share your sentiments, who express those and push them throughout the world, the airwaves, are the problem. And it’s unfortunate because I considered you a friend.
“I looked up to you. You’re somebody who I had a great deal of respect for. But sometimes you should shut the (expletive) up.”
But there is a larger lesson to take from the Brees controversy. For those who want this chilling time to transform from a moment into a movement, Brees is exactly the kind of person who needs to be admonished — but also reached. He was wrong Wednesday, yet on the whole, he is fundamentally kind. His critics need to have the emotional stamina to do more than tear him apart. They can expand his mind.
Let’s talk about human decency vs. genuine equality. The two ideas should intersect, but they often run parallel.
It is a basic human trait to be horrified at the sight of someone being choked to death. Only monsters don’t possess the capacity to rage against something as evil as Chauvin’s savage disregard for a life. Human decency prompted basically every compassionate person in the country — including Brees — to express that they are appalled. For the most part, it has been encouraging to feel the energy of such compassion and to watch so many in this nation and countries throughout the world protest for justice in America. There is also a selfishness to some of it, this need to make clear that you are not insouciant and therefore complicit in human suffering.
It is neither commendable nor novel to be unsettled by suffering. The real difficulty is not straining to find the words to convey sympathy, disbelief and a desire for change. The exertion lies in the follow-through.
Genuine equality? It has been unattainable in this country because of the nuance involved and the fact that, mercifully, there is not an abundance of death-by-police-suffocation videos to maintain motivation. Human decency, if turned into action, is a portal to genuine equality, which is a reason for hope that this moment can become a movement. But a large-scale effort to implement policies that can change police behaviors, improve communication and understanding between whites and blacks and push us closer to genuine equality? Well, that is America’s version of Mission Impossible.
The tone-deaf remarks from Brees can be both detrimental and useful. They exemplified why the nation hasn’t made more significant progress on its most complicated issues. When it comes to race, the outright bigots are a rather easy bunch to fight. You see them coming. You know their motivations. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”
You can be a good person, a great person, and allow bad things to happen. You can have a moral compass and lack the endurance to follow it at all times. This concept transcends race. Hypocrisy and indifference are fundamental human traits, too. We have free will, and we often use it to be selectively numb and dumb.
Brees, who is outspoken about his Christian faith, made a similar mistake last September when he appeared in a video for “Bring Your Bible to School Day,” which turned out to be linked to a group known for its anti-LGBT views. He claimed he didn’t know about the group’s troubling history. As he is doing now, he pointed to his inclusive track record. In 2010, he had participated in an ad campaign in which he took a stance against bullying and supported an effort to prevent gay teen suicides.
These controversies don’t make him homophobic or racist. His good deeds don’t make him unassailable, either. Brees has been a stronger advocate for decency than most, but clearly, he has dangerous viewpoints, too. No one is immune to implicit biases that inhibit the ability to see a bigger picture. In Brees’ shame, there is a universal example of how indifference and ignorance can slither into the mind in the same insidious manner that racism can. To conquer it, Brees and the angry, disappointed masses both need to recognize that and rise above insults and defensiveness.
Brees should not be cast as an incorrigible adversary to Black Lives Matter. He appears to have genuinely heard his critics in the past day. The endless fight for genuine equality involves more than turning back the worst people. Progress demands persuading the best to be better.