Earlier this week star NFL quarterback Drew Brees — statistically the most accurate passer in the history of the sport — missed the mark completely.
When asked in an interview how the league should respond if players started kneeling during the national anthem again, Brees answered by saying, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”
He would then go on to talk about his own experience with patriotism and the sacrifices veterans made in this country. He never directly talked about the injustices both past and present that caused this type of protest to occur.
What followed was unprecedented. Players from around the league (including several of his own teammates), players in other sports, people in the media and every-day citizens publicly condemned his comments. It only took Brees around 20 hours to quickly muster up a long, and mostly thoughtful apology on social media.
There are so many aspects of this situation to unpack, but there are two things we need to get out of the way.
First, anyone should feel free to have their opinion on kneeling during the national anthem both pro and con. This argument has been going on ever since Colin Kaepernick did it in 2016. In fact, Brees actually gave the same statement in 2016 about kneeling.
Second, kneeling during the anthem was never about disrespecting the flag, country or veterans. It was factually suggested to Kaepernick by former Green Beret Nate Boyer as a better way to protest compared to how the former San Francisco quarterback was originally sitting down during the anthem.
After Kaepernick started kneeling, he was met with widespread vitriol and criticism, and he was quick to state that his protest was not meant to disrespect the flag but to bring awareness to police brutality and racism in our country.
So this brings us to the present.
How did Brees mischaracterize what kneeling during the anthem was meant for after more than four years of people clearly explaining the meaning behind the protest? Was it ignorance or was it done intentionally?
Guess what? It doesn’t matter why he overlooked the truth. What matters is that he did. He said what he said. And it’s a perfect showcase of where we are right now as a society.
Brees was so focused on his own feelings, opinions and experiences with patriotism, that he completely forgot to listen to the feelings, opinions and experiences of people who are different from him.
It’s that very lack of empathy that has been on full display in the streets of our nation. Rather, it’s a police officer using extreme and unnecessary force or a protester committing acts of violence, empathy (the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective) is missing in this moment of time.
And guess what? There was a lack of empathy in the reaction to Brees’ comments. People went as far as to call him a racist and there were calls for him to retire.
How did those naysayers forget the amount of support Brees gave to the New Orleans community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?
The Brees Dream Foundation has contributed almost $25 million to improving the quality of life around the world and in 2010 Sports Illustrated said he was “an athlete as adored and appreciated as any in an American city today.”
Brees is a good man who has done so much for so many. But even good men make mistakes and show a lack of empathy at times.
I’ll be honest. This is an uncomfortable column for me to write. I’ve purposefully stayed away from such “touchy” topics in this space. And maybe that has to do with me being in a privileged position in my own life.
Well, it’s time to get uncomfortable. The path of empathy is not an easy one for anyone to take, but the right choice is usually the hardest one.
Brees’ apology gives me hope that he, and so many others, will start listening more and more. However, it is noticeable that he didn’t make this apology in 2016 when he said the same thing.
He only made it after the ensuing, far-reaching backlash in 2020. People are simply exhausted and finished with those who showcase a blatant disregard for understanding or empathy.
And even still, Brees failed to paint anthem protests in an accurate light by not apologizing for the way he mischaracterized kneeling. There is still work to be done here, and hopefully the wounds created between him and his teammates can be healed over time.
And yes, hopefully, the wounds that have been created in our country can be healed as well over time.
But until those who show a disregard for empathy get out of their own way and start truly listening, those wounds will not be mended.
I’d like to believe that we aren’t very far away from healing. But when even the most accurate passer in the history of football continues to miss the mark, then there is obviously still so much work left to be done.