Why Drew Brees’ apology missed the mark again with some players, and what he has to do next

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Drew Brees, in the aftermath of causing a national controversy with misguided comments about peaceful protests in the NFL, could have said so much more. And what he continues to omit continues to speak loudly to some in the NFL community.

The Saints quarterback, commendably, did concede in his social media post that his remarks lacked “awareness and any type of compassion or empathy.” He got it right when he noted he “completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country.” But even his apology displayed what many players around the league perceived as a stunning lack of awareness by one of the faces of the NFL, who became an icon to a largely African American fanbase in New Orleans. Even in expressing his remorse on multiple occasions on Thursday, Brees has to yet to take ownership for distorting the reasons why Colin Kaepernick began to take a knee in the summer of 2016.

And that is a problem.

Brees avoided the issue of kneeling during the national anthem in protest entirely in his initial apology and a subsequent video posted Thursday night, which several NFL players I spoke to say will remain a significant issue for him until he does so. There is an inherent privilege in Brees feeling a freedom to reframe a black man’s protest against systematic oppression to fit his own worldview, which some who play this game might never get past.

Brees, when asked an open-ended question in an interview with Yahoo Finance on Wednesday, chose to impugn NFL player sideline protests against police brutality at a critical moment in this nation’s history. His apology never addressed the issue of those sideline protests, either, after he had spoken similarly in 2017 when the protest movement grew around the league. At some point, Brees will have to publicly clarify if he does in fact still view kneeling on the sidelines as “disrespecting the flag of the United States of America,” and his words and deeds will be closely monitored from here on out. He expressed extreme contrition in an online team meeting with teammates Thursday, I’m told, and many teammates were very receptive, but words alone won’t make this go away.

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This was a missed opportunity for someone upheld as a pillar in American sports, who rose to prominence after helping rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to show some growth. Brees had a platform to display an expanded mindset and more understanding after a police officer was charged with murder for kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, the latest in a sickening history of African Americans dying at the hands of police that has prompted ongoing protests around the world nearly 10 days later.

Now, with the inevitable social media apologies behind him, Brees has real work to do. This atrocity so many around the world are fighting against isn’t going away anytime soon. And so many of the strongest black voices around the game of football were livid and heartbroken and — it seemed more than anything — hurt by Brees’ lack of respect for their method of expression.

Hall of Famer and Louisiana native Ed Reed was moved to repeatedly call Brees a “sucker” in a video, a look of hurt and bewilderment on his face. Acclaimed actor and proud New Orleans native Wendell Pierce went in on Brees as well. Incurring the ire of Reed and Pierce, while making $25 million a year to throw a football in that city, is not advised.

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Brees’ words led to Malcolm Jenkins, one of the leaders of The Players Coalition who rejoined the Saints this offseason, to release multiple videos — real, honest, pained, visceral — cursing at Brees in one deleted video and then again calling out his quarterback repeatedly for somehow still failing to grasp what taking a knee is all about. Domonique Foxworth, former head of the NFL Players Association, said on ESPN, “I do, however, think it’s going to be a burden for Drew all season long.”

Former Saints receiver Donte’ Stallworth, who has lobbied for criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill with Jenkins, told me Thursday afternoon, after he’d had time to digest the totality of Brees’ words and statements, that the quarterback began reaching out to Jenkins shortly after his remarks went viral. Stallworth, who knows Brees, says he is a good man, though it is difficult to understand how out of step he was with the protest movement.  

“I hope that he can be allowed to educate himself to remove some of these false notions about what he protest was about,” Stallworth said.

The fact that team leaders like Demario Davis and Michael Thomas, who was clearly upset Wednesday, had embraced this apology Thursday on social media should bode well for the quarterback. Brees was contrite, engaged and willing to learn, I’m told, from those familiar with the Saints’ online team meeting on Thursday.

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But with an issue as visceral as this, with this country on fire in so many cities, there are going to be those among the 90-plus men at training camp who will have issues with the man who breaks down their pregame huddle and calls them “family.” There were players on other teams already circling their upcoming games with the Saints, and no social media apology post is going to change that.

The fact that games may very well be played this season without fans might actually be best for Brees at this point, and he will have some serious rebuilding to do with New Orleans, a city that has dealt with a preponderance of economic and social injustice over the years.

“The black fans in that city embraced him as their own, and he just went and hit them in the gut,” said an NFL front office executive who formerly worked in the Saints organization. “A statement isn’t going to erase that. This is going to be a problem for him with those fans in that city. Trust me.”

Brees is going to have to do much more talking to teammates and people in that organization, too. He’d best perform some good deeds — specifically slated to anti-police brutality causes now — to get many in that huddle to ever look at him the same way again. Some, frankly, never will.