By that point, several NFL players — as well as NBA superstar LeBron James — had sharply criticized Brees for his remarks. That group appeared to include the New Orleans quarterback’s own favorite pass-catcher, Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas.
The backlash led Brees to apologize Thursday morning on Instagram, saying in part: “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.”
Brees and Rodgers appear to be locks for the Hall of Fame as two of the greatest quarterbacks of their time. In addition, the position they play confers an inherently large degree of leadership, making it all the more noteworthy that the Packers’ signal-caller drew such a sharp distinction with Brees on a subject of renewed national interest.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and some other NFL players first knelt in 2016 during pregame renditions of the anthem to raise awareness of police brutality and other social justice issues. At that time, Brees had his reasons for choosing to remain standing.
With protests flaring across the United States after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died last week when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Brees said Wednesday he hasn’t changed his mind. He’ll continue to stand, he declared in a Yahoo Finance On the Move video.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees, 41, told Daniel Roberts. “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.
“I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corps,” Brees continued. “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.”
In his post, Rodgers did not mention Brees by name, but it was hard not to read his comments in the context of what his Saints counterpart had said hours earlier.
Sharing a photo of himself and Packers teammates engaged in a demonstration before a game in 2017, Rodgers wrote, “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.”
After that 2017 game — which came in a week that saw similar demonstrations throughout the NFL after President Trump demanded the league get “son of a bitch” players off the field if they continued to kneel — Rodgers called on Green Bay fans to link arms before their next home game.
Saying then that the protests were “about equality” and not disrespect for the flag of the military, Rodgers added, “This is about unity and love and growing together as a society, and starting a conversation around something that may be a little bit uncomfortable for people.”
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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
Brees’s comments Wednesday quickly drew some high-profile backlash, and raised questions about whether he may encounter some problems in his own locker room when Saints players reconvene.
“WOW MAN!!” James wrote in reply to the Yahoo Finance tweet. “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.”
Thomas said on Twitter, “He don’t know no better,” approximately an hour after the Yahoo Finance tweet was posted. The fifth-year player, who has been far and away Brees’s favorite pass-catcher since arriving in the NFL, also posted a sickened-face emoji in response to a tweet questioning the veteran quarterback’s stance amid the national turmoil over the killing of George Floyd.
Another New Orleans player, veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins, was more direct — and highly emotional — in a video response to Brees he shared online.
“Drew Brees, if you don’t understand how hurtful, how insensitive your comments are, you are part of the problem,” said Jenkins, who has been among the NFL’s most active and outspoken players on issues of racial justice. He added that Brees did not understand his “privilege.”
“Our communities are under siege, and we need help,” Jenkins said in a video that he subsequently deleted. “And what you’re telling us is, ‘Don’t ask for help that way. Ask a different way. I can’t listen to it when you ask that way.’
“We’re done asking, Drew. 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.”
A pair of players for the Patriots, twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty, called Brees’s comments “a disgrace.” In a tweet, they said, “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!”
Thomas also retweeted multiple posts sharing Rodgers’s assertion that it has never “been about an anthem or a flag.”
Later on Wednesday, Brees attempted to clarify his comments, telling 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 — who participated in Instagram’s Blackout Tuesday movement, along with other influential quarterbacks such as Rodgers and Tom Brady — explained to Roberts that he remains standing for other reasons.
“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,” he said. “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.”
When NFL protests were at their height in the fall of 2017, Brees stood for the anthem with his hand over his heart. However, he was critical of Trump, saying his comments were “unbecoming of the office of the president of the United States,” and agreed that racism and inequality were problems in the country.
“I will always feel that if you are an American the national anthem is an opportunity for us all to stand up together, to be unified and show respect for our country and to show respect for what it stands for,” Brees said in a postgame news conference on Sept. 24, 2017.
“But if the protest becomes that we are going to sit down or kneel and not show respect to the United States of America and everything that it symbolizes, and everything that it stands for, and everything our country has been through to get to this point, I don’t agree with that.”
A week later, with protests increasing throughout the league and 10 Saints players not standing, Brees tweeted a compromise. “As a way to show respect to all, our #Saints team will kneel in solidarity prior to the national anthem & stand together during the anthem.”
In his comments Wednesday to ESPN, Brees said via a text message, “And I would ask anyone who has a problem with what I said to look at the way I live my life. Do I come across as someone who is not doing my absolute best to make this world a better place, to bring justice and equality to others, and hope & opportunity to those who don’t have it? That’s what I meant by actions speak louder than words. … My ACTIONS speak for themselves.”