As we wage the fight for racial justice, it is crucially important for the black community to keep in mind that it needs all the support it can get from people everywhere. That is why we must be careful not to do things that could unnecessarily alienate those who would otherwise be on our side.
I found the fierce criticism of the recent comments by the New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees regarding Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest quite troubling. As quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick had refused to stand for the national anthem before games as a way to bring the nation’s attention to police brutality and other injustices against blacks in America. Some people supported his action, while others expressed vehement opposition. Upon learning that the 49ers planned to release him, Kaepernick opted out of his contract in 2017, and has since been unable to find another team to sign him.
In response to an interviewer’s question about whether the horrific murder of George Floyd, which further highlighted police brutality against blacks, would justify future protesting of the national anthem by players, Brees reportedly said that “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” He cited the military experiences of his grandfathers as reasons for his position.
Given how raw emotions are in the current environment, I agree that Brees could have chosen his words a bit more carefully. He later apologized for them. In stating his view, which I am fully convinced he should be entitled to, Brees should perhaps have also acknowledged that Kaepernick’s action, no matter how objectionable it was to him and others, was based on legitimate grievances. The way we prevent injustices—racial or economic—from building up to the point where someone like Kaepernick is driven to take such a dramatic action is to show that we are at least willing to listen to their complaints, not dismiss them out of hand as Brees seems to have initially done with his comments.
One could argue that Brees’s words give encouragement to those who unfairly blacklisted Kaepernick and denied him the opportunity to make a living in his chosen profession for exercising his right to air his views. That would be a fair point, but that responsibility should be placed on the shoulders of the National Football League team owners who made those individual decisions.
Brees’s apology appears to have settled the controversy. But I wonder whether the swift and heavy-handed manner in which the hammer was brought down on him might leave a bad taste in his mouth and influence how he approaches his philanthropic works in the black community going forward.
Much has been written about the multiple ways in which Brees used his time, energy, and resources to help revitalize New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Recently, he and his wife pledged $5 million to support coronavirus relief efforts in Louisiana.
Actions do speak louder than words. I wish people had paused for a moment to take Brees’s many good deeds into consideration as they were expressing their unhappiness with his comments. We should focus our wrath on George Floyd’s killer and others like him, not on allies like Drew Brees.
The harsh tone of our national discourse is exacerbating the polarization that has done so much damage to the country. When we disagree with others on any issues, we must always make some allowance for the possibility that a difference of opinion might result from sincere and legitimate feelings, and not necessarily dogma or laziness of thought. By denying others that space to honestly express their sentiments, we run the risk of perpetuating the dangerous stalemate in which America currently finds itself, for which we are all paying a very heavy price.