When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told Yahoo Finance on Wednesday that NFL players kneeling during the national anthem was “disrespectful,” the condemnation, from inside and outside the NFL, was understandably swift. (In an emotional video posted on social media, teammate Malcolm Jenkins called Brees “part of the problem”; protestors in New Orleans, where Brees has been beloved, cursed him in the streets). And while Brees offered an apology on Thursday, the wounds he inflicted will take time to heal. If they ever do at all.
During a time of national reckoning on race in the wake of Floyd’s death, millions of Americans, Brees included, made symbolic promises on social media and elsewhere to stand in support of African-Americans grieving an unimaginable tragedy caught on film. Brees, however, criticized a gesture — kneeling during the anthem — that many players in the NFL, which is 70% people of color, view as a peaceful act of opposition to the sort of event the world saw in South Minneapolis, on Memorial Day. “The timing is awful,” says Detroit Lions linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who has knelt for the anthem.
Brees brought up the military service of his grandfathers as a basis opposing kneeling; both of Reeves-Maybin’s grandfathers were in the military. One was a pilot in Desert Storm, and his great grandfather fought in World War II. “I think we all kind of got the point where we’re tired of people changing the narrative on the protest that started with Colin Kaepernick, who was kneeling against police brutality and black people being killed and on being held accountable,” says Reeves-Maybin. “And when we’ve just seen video that is plain as day, and for you to still come out and just try to twist it, it’s a slap in the face. It’s kind of unacceptable.”
Brees’ words have struck a nerve for a wide range of important reasons. It wasn’t too long ago, for example, that the President of the United States called players who knelt during the anthem “sons of bitches,” a flashpoint that divided the country. You’re either for the flag, or against America. “His (and others) comments are triggers for trauma,” writes Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, the Super Bowl 50 MVP, in an email to TIME. “They open all wounds, ugly conversations and controversies from the past.” Further, the fevered blowback to Brees’ remarks lay bare the enormous cultural influence of the NFL’s most visible stars — the franchise quarterbacks — and serves as an implicit challenge for these players, particularly the white ones, going forward: to step up their support for African-American teammates speaking out against injustice.
“White athletes really haven’t really had a voice in racial equality in America,” says Michael Bennett, the free agent defensive end who played last season with the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys. (Bennett accused police of racial profiling him during a 2017 incident in Las Vegas; police denied it). There are exceptions: Megan Rapinoe, for example, kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick back in 2016 — and continues to get flack for it — and recently retired defensive lineman Chris Long has backed the rights of players to protest and lobbied state legislatures for criminal justice reform. But as powerful allies in the fight for social justice, Bennett gives white quarterbacks particularly low marks. “It’s one of the most disappointing things,” says Bennett. “I see all these great quarterbacks that have been game changers when it comes to the work playing on the field. But they haven’t been able to be game changers in society.
Bennett offers his former teammate in New England, Tom Brady, credit for recently signing onto a letter — sent to Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray — requesting an immediate federal investigation into the death of Ahmaud Arbery. But his brother Martellus, a retired tight end, called Aaron Rodgers to task on Twitter; while Rodgers noted in a post accompanying an Instagram photo — in which he was locking arms with African-American teammates — that “it has NEVER been about an anthem or a flag,” Marcellus pointed to comments in which Rogers said “THEY [Bennett’s caps] have a battle for racial equality. That’s what THEY’RE trying to start a conversation around.” Bennett wrote on Twitter: “Doesn’t sound like an ally sounds like a spectator.”
Such language matters, especially in this moment. “I am not going to focus on the quarterback position because here in Denver WE play as a team,” writes Miller. “As a team, WE need to have solidarity. From the owner, the coaches, the players, the staff and down to the maintenance crew at Mile High Stadium WE need to collaborate, WE need to educate each other, WE need to listen and have tolerance of one another.”
Harry Edwards, a sociologist and activist who helped organize the black-power salute at the 1968 Olympics, offers Brees a blueprint for moving forward. “I’m glad to see that Drew has apologized,” says Edwards. “But now the issue becomes, ok now, what are you going to do?” He recommends that he get in touch with athletes like Long and Rapinoe. “The first thing he can do is to begin that discussion,” says Edwards. “Get that discussion going with the white sports community.”
Edwards – who notes that in recent days he’s received media requests from all over the world (Brazil, Germany, France, Ireland, South Africa) to discuss U.S. race relations and the role of sports — predicts an upcoming “fifth wave” of athlete activism, to follow the early 20th century athletes who fought for recognition, post-war pioneers like Jackie Robinson who sought desegregation, the “Black Power” movement of the 1960s, and the protests of the 2010s. “You’d have to be deathly insane not to understand that there will be more to come,” says Edwards. “Why? Because that’s the history.”
We’re living in unprecedented times, amidst a pandemic and global revolt against racism. All athletes have to think outside themselves — just like the rest of us. “If you had a group of top line white quarterback in the NFL say we’re going to take a knee,” says Edwards, “we’re going to have a discussion, we’re not all right and we’re going to be a part of this transformative era brought on by the efforts of our African-American teammates, that would reflect best on us all.”