New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees understands discretion is the better part of valor, even if by practicing that maxim it empowers an ignorant and reductionist sports mob.
This week, a finance website highlighted comments Brees made about kneeling during the playing of the national anthem as a form of protest. He spoke consistently about that act he had criticized four years ago when a handful of National Football League players hopped on that trend, saying at the time
… there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag.
The great thing about this country is that we have the freedoms that allow you to speak out openly about any issue. So, I’m not commenting on the issue itself because any person has the right to speak out on any issue they want. That’s the great thing about being an American. But the American flag is what represents those freedoms. It represents the very freedom that [gives such protesters] the opportunity to exercise by speaking out his opinion in a peaceful manner about that issue ….
This week, in response to the idea that the almost-entirely dormant form of protest would return to the scene if and when NFL football returned, over the controversy of alleged bogus money passer George Floyd’s death from excessive force while in police custody, he elaborated on the idea that the flag represents a particular set of human rights and a political system designed to maximize the propagation and defense of them, which in the process demands many, often shared, sacrifices:
I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America. [E]very time I stand with my hand over my heart, looking at that flag and singing the national anthem, that’s what I think about … thinking about all that has been sacrificed, not just those in the military, but for that matter, those throughout the civil rights movement of the 60s. And all that has been endured by so many people. And is everything right with our country right now? No, it’s 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 we are all part of the solution.”
He expressed an eloquence and depth not anticipated nor often seen from a professional athlete. Which drove a bunch of millionaires who play kids’ games for a living, with a pandemic forcibly idling them and giving them lots of time with little to do – joined by some hangers-on sports scribblers – crazy.
The several complainers, including some of Brees’ teammates, vented in a couple of directions. One, through means which would baffle any rational thinker, somehow conflates a negative view on disrespecting the flag via protest with at best indifference to assisting “communities … under siege,” as validated by the Floyd incident.
Never mind that, if using it as an indicator of being “under siege,” the idea that systematic police killings of blacks is a myth easily dispelled by the data – what does opposing this manner of protest have in any way to do with prevention of police violence against certain people? Is flag disrespect the only method that can stop it? Is it even the best method? Is it even an effective method? Or is it just something spoiled, rich guys who crave attention off the field do who lash out anti-intellectually and emotively at anybody who expresses rhetoric that exposes the paucity of their argument?
Then there’s the nonsensical theme that the flag merely is a bunch of strips of cloth that each separately mean something, so you can protest the strips you ascribe to it negatively without disrespecting the whole, largely positive meaning you assign it. Thus, protesting during the national anthem has “nothing to do with the disrespect of [the United States flag] and our soldiers.”
All right, if you really believe that, then why all the fuss over the Confederate flag where calls go out not just to protest it, but to eradicate its display in public venues? After all, values of self-determination, democracy, economic freedom, etc. all lay behind the attempted secession, and so why can’t these be celebrated with its presence on government property in the states which were part of the Confederacy?
The reply is obvious: because the Confederacy primarily existed as a vehicle to perpetuate a tremendous evil that ran counter to American values that unfortunately were first practiced in the breach but, precisely because those values existed and were supported, gradually had behavior brought into line with their preaching – and it took the worst loss of American lives in history to correct the mistaken behavior.
You cannot separate one from the other; the flag’s meaning is comprehensive. Protesting the flag by a signal of unambiguous rejection (such as kneeling during the national anthem) could signal upset with a country whose local jurisdictions’ police allegedly discriminate by color, but it also ineluctably means a rejection of liberties (including that of protest) that the Constitution guarantees that government cannot abrogate and the form of government in the Constitution designed to accomplish that, as well as disparaging those who have given lives to ensure this. (Alternatively, a passive rejection by not responding in any way to the flag, if not plain indifference to those values, rejects the notion of government completely as an institution relevant to one’s life, as illustrated in the Flag Salute cases.)
Brees’ argument was powerful, intellectually compelling – and incendiary to those insufficiently tutored in history and the social sciences and obsessed with race as the end-all/be-all explanatory variable of American government and society. Which is why those like Brees who harbor zero racial animosity couldn’t understand the reaction that came.
And this difficulty in grasping that mentality is why Brees would give into the mob with a retraction of sorts. He has to work with these people and has angled for a career in the broadcast booth after he hangs up his cleats, so he doesn’t want the simpletons who dominate the outspoken among sports journalists and network executives with feet of clay to cancel him like they did to another accomplished ex-athlete who spoke out contrary to their political orthodoxy, former baseball pitcher Curt Schilling. As good as his arguments are, he’s simply not going to change the thinking of such narrow-minded individuals, and so his desisting did the best for him.
At least he can comfort himself in knowing he was right, if not popular among his more vocal peers. And the mob blusters on, fueling the spiral of silence now more than ever describing political discussion in the sports world.