NFL star for the New Orleans Saints, Drew Brees, has hit a raw nerve with comments about kneeling during the US national anthem amid protests sparked by the death of African-American man George Floyd.
The Super Bowl champion, often seen as the league’s “nice guy” and a fan favourite, has been met with significant backlash from teammates, rivals and NBA stars following his comments on kneeling during the national anthem.
The current atmosphere in the US has provoked talk of more players kneeling during the upcoming NFL season to highlight police brutality – the same actions that resulted in Colin Kaepernick being black-listed from the league.
The Saints quarterback said he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”
“Let me just tell what I see or what I feel when the national anthem is played and when I look at the flag of the United States,” Brees, 41, told MM Sports.
“I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corp.
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, that 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 is 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 that we are all in this together, we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.”
As expected, Brees’ comments were met with stern opposition from several African-American athletes.
Perhaps the the most concerning for Brees and the Saints was the reaction from his two wide-receivers.
He don’t know no better.
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) June 3, 2020
We don’t care if you don’t agree and whoever else how about that.
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) June 3, 2020
Michael Thomas, who last season signed a record extension with the team, making him the highest paid receiver in the NFL, expressed his displeasure at the comments on social media.
Thomas’ form and ability to make a catch has arguably extended Brees’ career, and upsetting the chemistry with his main target may have a huge impact on the team.
“He don’t know no better,” Thomas, 27, wrote on Twitter. “We don’t care if you don’t agree and whoever else how about that.”
Fellow Saints wide-out Emmanuel Sanders, who just signed a one-year deal to play in New Orleans to give Brees more options, also took to social media to denounce the comments. Sanders posted: “Smh (shaking my head).. Ignorant.”
— Emmanuel Sanders (@ESanders_10) June 3, 2020
NBA legend LeBron James also chimed in, bewildered by the quarterback’s comments at such a sensitive time.
“WOW MAN!!” James responded on Twitter.
“Is it still surprising at this point. Sure isn’t! You literally still don’t understand why Kap 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.
“My father-in-law was one of those men who fought as well for this country. I asked him question about it and thank him all the time for his commitment. He never found Kap peaceful protest offensive because he and I both know what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong! God bless you.”
WOW MAN!! 🤦🏾♂️. Is it still surprising at this point. Sure isn’t! You literally still don’t understand why Kap was kneeling on one knee?? Has absolute nothing to do with the disrespect of 🇺🇸 and our soldiers(men and women) who keep our land free. My father-in-law was one of those https://t.co/pvUWPmh4s8
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 3, 2020
This is a disgrace! 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! https://t.co/qag3Igic3V
— Devin&Jason McCourty (@McCourtyTwins) June 3, 2020
“This is a disgrace! To speak about your grandfathers as if there weren’t black men fighting next to them,” the McCourty brothers’ joint Twitter account said. “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 (sic) right!”
At a time when African-American athletes have called on their white counterparts to stand beside them in an attempt to make their message clearer, the pro-bowler’s comments have cut deep.
Brees has since provided a 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.”
Brees’ comments come a day after Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio was quoted saying the NFL’s racial problems “are minimal”.
The 61-year-old, who has spent 33 years coaching in the NFL before scoring his first head coaching gig last year, said the NFL is “a league of meritocracy. You earn what you get. You get what you earn.
“I don’t see racism at all in the NFL,” Fangio continued. “I don’t see discrimination in the NFL. We all live together, joined as one, for one common goal, and we all intermingle and mix tremendously. If society reflected an NFL team, we’d all be great.”
His perspective was met with opposition from athletes and commentators, especially since the NFL had to implement the Rooney Rule in 2003, for minority coaches to have a chance of getting head coaching jobs and executive positions.
African- Americans have long argued for more of a chance at leadership positions in coaching and the front office, especially since they make up 70 per cent of the playing group.
Currently, there are four head coaches from a possible 32 that are from minority backgrounds.
The Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.
The rule has been described as an ‘interview quota’ rather than a hiring one, forcing teams to open their doors to other candidates during the hiring process.
There have also been calls for amendments to the Rooney Rule with the NFL proposing a vote to improve chances of having minorities in leadership positions.
If a team hires a minority head coach, then in the draft preceding the coach’s second season, his team can be moved up six spots in the third round of the draft.
NFL owners pushed back against the change, calling for another way to incentivize teams to hire minorities.