Of Course It Is ‘About the Flag’

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees looks on before a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La., January 5, 2020. (Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports)

Disingenuous critics attack Drew Brees for his patriotic sentiments.

Last week, Drew Brees said he would “never agree with anyone disrespecting the flag of the United States of America, or our country.” Standing for the flag “shows unity, it shows that we are all in this together, that we can all do better, and that we are all part of the solution” to the various injustices that plague our country.

The blowback to his remarks was swift and severe.

Former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe told Brees to just “go ahead and retire now.” Eagles defensive tackle Malik Jackson “lost a lot of respect” for the Saints quarterback and looked forward to exacting revenge on the gridiron in the fall. Retired wide receiver Greg Jennings called the quarterback’s remarks “callous and selfish.” Brees’s own teammate, safety Malcolm Jenkins, told him “that people who share your sentiments, who express those and push them throughout the world, the airwaves, are the problem.”

Yes: It is in our very brave new world that Drew Brees and his statement of principle are “the problem.” At fault, apparently, for our national ills are people like Drew Brees, whose charitable foundation has given more than $35 million to causes such as hunger and childhood cancer, people who — to quote the attempted epithet of sports commentator Skip Bayless — are “blinded” by “God and country.” These people — not Derek Chauvin, not the perpetrators of the 18 homicides that occurred in Chicago on Monday — are the real “problem,” the real source of our social pathologies.

Brees should have known that his charitable pedigree and longstanding reputation would be no defense for the sin of challenging emerging orthodoxies on race and American depravity. ESPN analyst Maria Taylor said of Brees, “I’m not going to . . . walk myself back and say, ‘Well, he did give a lot of money.’ I don’t care.” Indeed, the mob never does.

Brees has since apologized for his remarks, making use of the requisite nostrums such as “ally” and “social injustice” in his apology, perhaps in a quest to keep his head from the Jacobins who would take it. His wife released a statement, echoing Jenkins’s assessment that people like her and her husband are “the problem” in the United States. Self-flagellation, though, is never enough — Brees challenged the regnant narrative that America is racist to its core, not a country with racial tensions in need of correction but a society that is institutionally beset by racial oppression. For that, no matter how much he apologizes, he will be branded a racist by the sorts of people eager to make that designation ubiquitous.

Some in the sports talk-show universe — a universe that has become saturated with identitarian jeremiads and half-baked political analysis since at least the 2016 election — say that Brees erred in invoking the flag when condemning the protesters. The kneeling protests, these talking heads say, were never about America or the flag — it was always about police brutality. Sharpe, who cohosts “Undisputed” on Fox Sports 1, said that Brees chose “to make it about the flag, as opposed to the plight of the unarmed black men being killed in America.” Dan Le Batard of the ESPN show “Highly Questionable” agreed, noting that “what we’re talking about is not flag, anthem, and patriotism. What we’re talking about is police brutality.” Nick Wright, also of Fox Sports 1, wanted to “remind Drew Brees, and others who evidently need it” that Colin Kaepernick “and everyone who kneeled alongside him made it crystal clear: This is about systemic police brutality against the black community, and has nothing to do with the flag, our troops, or anything to do with patriotism.”

It had everything to do with the flag, though. Colin Kaepernick himself said that he refused “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He was not using the national anthem as a means of highlighting his opposition to the evils of police brutality and reforms that he thought were needed. Instead, the country and the flag itself were the objects of his protest — he himself said they were unworthy of his respect. Perhaps the commentators above would say that lack of respect is justified, but they should make that case and not pretend that Kaepernick’s protest had “nothing to do with the flag.” To Kaepernick, the United States is not merely a country with some number of racist citizens, but a racist country to its core. If those commentators agree, they should say so. We should have that debate. But to condemn Drew Brees’s comments as if he misrepresented Kaepernick’s stance is dishonest. He characterized it well, which, one suspects, is why they were so angry.

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