Four years later, it’s 2016 all over again. No, we’re not talking about an election but rather the NFL. The national movement sparked by the death of George Floyd has rekindled a fight that seemed to have abated long ago: Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the national anthem.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees re-upped the controversy when talking to Yahoo Finance last week, saying, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag.”
Context be damned, Brees’ good character was dragged through the mud by current players and former players, not to mention the most famous athlete on the planet, LeBron James, and the media. Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins told Brees to “shut the f-ck up,” and Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe suggested Brees retire. The ultimate indignity was revealed by Brees’ wife, who acknowledged on Instagram the couple had received death threats.
We can set aside for a moment that Brees helped lift the spirits of a majority-black city, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, when his team inspired New Orleans with a Super Bowl victory. He also helped rebuild parks, schools, and athletic facilities after the disaster. Forget about the $5 million donation he and his foundation made to New Orleans after COVID-19 ravaged the black community.
None of that mattered, nor did the fact that Brees’ respect for the flag is due to his two grandfathers’ service in the U.S. military during World War II. The 41–year-old made a heartfelt apology, saying his remarks were “insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country.”
President Donald Trump then took the ball and ran with it, tweeting that Brees “should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag…NO KNEELING!”
The QB fired back at Trump on Instagram, saying, “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.”
From there, the battle elevated from field- to suite-level, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell re-entering the fray. Goodell had long been maligned for squashing the “take a knee” protest and for what some people felt was his blackballing Kaepernick from the league.
This time, Goodell dramatically shifted the NFL’s stance. In a video from the league’s Twitter feed, 61-year-old Goodell said, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter.”
The league’s owners must remember the considerable decline in TV ratings that was largely attributed to the national anthem protest. Why is the league now supporting that very gesture? Will it welcome Kaepernick back?
Certainly, the world’s most powerful football fan will look to seize on either move to fire up his base ahead of November. Trump, however, isn’t waiting for fall. The president tweeted Sunday: “Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?” Unlike last time around, when the flag flap played out in San Francisco, it now appears to be headed to the president’s backyard.
Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson left no ambiguity about what’s going to play out, telling the Houston Chronicle over the weekend, “[N]ow we’re all getting ready to take a knee together going into this season, without a doubt.”
While it’s not yet clear when the NFL season will start or if fans will be there to witness it, one thing is certain: If and when play resumes, the fiery debate over systemic discrimination, police brutality, and the American flag will return.