Drew Brees apologized Thursday for comments that were “insensitive and completely missed the mark” when he reiterated his opposition to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem in 2016, drawing sharp criticism from fellow high-profile athletes and others in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Los Angeles Lakers great LeBron James, New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL player Martellus Bennett were just some of the high-profile athletes to criticize Brees on their Twitter feeds.
Brees, a New Orleans Saints quarterback who won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season, was asked Wednesday in an interview with Yahoo to revisit former NFL quarterback Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem before games to bring awareness of police brutality and racial injustice.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States,” Brees began, adding that the national anthem reminds him of his grandfathers, who served in the armed forces during World War II. “In many cases, it brings me to tears thinking about all that has been sacrificed, and not just 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.”
Many athletes have repeatedly said the kneeling was not about disrespecting the flag or the military but instead about police brutality.
Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Floyd, a Minneapolis black man who was handcuffed as the officer pressed a knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
In an Instagram post Thursday, Brees said he was apologizing to his friends, teammates, New Orleans, the black community, the NFL community and "anyone I hurt with my comments yesterday.”
“In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country,” he wrote. “They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy. Instead, those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character.”
Kaepernick hasn’t yet responded to the initial comments by Brees, but he did retweet a post by Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma before Brees' apology.
“This shows you that there are a lot of people & companies out there right now that will say they stand with us but only do it so they dont get bashed not because they mean it,” Kuzma wrote above a photo of Brees kneeling alongside teammates before an NFL game.
Brees has previously said he supports those against police brutality but he does not see the national anthem as the proper forum. In 2017, he participated with teammates who knelt before the national anthem but then stood in unison when the anthem was played.
James, who has been a leader in the social justice movement, said Wednesday he couldn’t believe Brees was still confused about what Kaepernick was trying to do.
“WOW MAN!!” James wrote 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 (American flag emoji) and our soldiers (men and women) who keep our land free. My father-in-law was one of those.”
Bennett, who won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots and retired in 2018, posted a long thread saying none of the white quarterbacks in the league have spoken out when it wasn’t easy to do so.
“And y’all wanna applaud them for these statements, when y’all crucified every athlete that said something by protesting in the beginning,” Bennett wrote. “Look (I’m) happy they’re saying something.. but when they had a chance to make a big play for their black teammates and colleagues most of em remained silent, showed ignorance or didn’t say anything of importance when it was really needed.”
Jenkins, who was Brees’ teammate when the Saints won the Super Bowl, spent the past six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles before returning to New Orleans this offseason. He posted a video of himself on Twitter speaking to his teammate.
“Drew Brees, if you don’t understand how hurtful, how insensitive your comments are, you are part of the problem,” Jenkins said. “To think that because your grandfathers served in this country that you have a great respect for the flag that everybody else should have the same ideals and thoughts that you do is ridiculous.
“And it shows that you don’t know history. Because when our grandfathers fought for this country and served, they came back ... they didn’t come back to a hero’s welcome. They came back and got attacked for wearing their uniforms. They came back to racism. To complete violence.”
Michael Thomas, a wide receiver on the Saints, responded to Brees’s comments on Twitter with a single emoji: a green face that indicated nausea. Emmanuel Sanders, another Saints wide receiver, also expressed dismay, writing on Twitter, “Smh.. Ignorant.”
Several commentators said the remarks were particularly insensitive, coming from a white quarterback in a league in which three-quarters of the players are African-American yet almost every owner and top team executive is white.
Brees, a Super Bowl champion who holds a number of NFL records, is also a major star in a city where a majority of residents are black.
Josh Hart, who plays in the NBA for the New Orleans Pelicans, said that kneeling during the anthem was “never about disrespecting the armed forces.”
“It’s about police brutality and racial injustices in our country,” he wrote on Twitter. “This country can’t be unified if African Americans are unjustly killed in the street because of the color of their skin.”
Before the apology, Brees defended his remarks, reiterating why he believed it was important to stand for the anthem.
“I believe we should all stand for the national anthem and respect our country and all those who sacrificed so much for our freedoms,” Brees told ESPN in a text message. “That includes all those who marched for women’s suffrage in the 1920s and all those who marched in the civil rights movements and continue to march for racial equality. All of us … EVERYONE … represent that flag. Same way I respect all the citizens of our country … no matter their race, color, religion.”
The New York Times contributed to this report