Drew Brees’ Kneeling Ignorance and Performative White Allyship
Those who kneel are simply asking the NFL to care about Black lives. A day after supporting #BlackoutTuesday, Brees says no, that’s “disrespecting the flag.”
On Tuesday, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees shared a black square on his Instagram as part of #BlackoutTuesday, one of thousands to do so in a movement to acknowledge the long-standing racism and inequality in the music industry that spread to encompass solidarity against racial injustice as a whole.
Today, Brees was asked about “his responsibility as a leader” when the NFL returns and many players will take a knee, following Colin Kaepernick’s original example in protest of police brutality and the killing of Black Americans. “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” he told Yahoo! Finance reporter Daniel Roberts.
There was immediate backlash to Brees doubling down on the stance he’s taken since 2016, when he said he supported Kaepernick’s point against racial injustice but did not condone kneeling during the National Anthem.
One teammate, Saints receiver Michael Thomas, didn’t weigh in directly, but quote-tweeted an NFL columnist’s tweet reading, “How can anyone watch George Floyd get murdered and their first response when asked about it is ResPEcC tHe fLAg” with a green-faced nauseated emoji.
Aaron Rodgers weighed in on Wednesday evening, posting a photo on Instagram of himself and his Green Bay Packers teammates locking arms in solidarity during a 2017 game with the caption, “A few years ago we were criticized for locking arms in solidarity before the game. It has NEVER been about an anthem or a flag. Not then. Not now. Listen with an open heart, let’s educate ourselves, and then turn word and thought into action.”
LeBron James also expressed surprise and disgust at Brees’ lack of evolution in light of the current protests and national discourse, tweeting, “WOW MAN!! 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 [flag emoji] and our soldiers(men and women) who keep our land free. My father-in-law was one of those.”
James was specifically referencing Brees’ justification that his family are war veterans and kneeling during the anthem is disrespecting them and the country—something that the protest has never been about. It’s been about calling attention to racial inequality and police brutality.
Brees said in the interview that when he hears the anthem, “I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country in World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corps, both risking their lives to protect our country and to try to make this country and our world a better place. So every time I stand with my hand over my heart looking at that flag and singing the National Anthem, that’s what I’m thinking about.”
As has been made clear time and again, kneeling is not an anthem protest or a flag protest. It is a protest against police brutalizing Black bodies, and rejecting the mandate to perform pride in a country that oppresses them.
Kneeling was chosen—in consultation with an Army Special Forces veteran—because it was a respectful gesture, akin to when the flag is at half-mast to mark tragedy and honor lost lives. Black men and women lose their lives every day because of how the country sees them. The flag doesn’t protect them. If the last week hasn’t made it clear that this is bigger than football, bigger than a flag, bigger than an anthem…
For many whose exasperation with Brees has sent him to the top of Twitter’s trending topics, another layer to the anger is in his otherwise performative allyship.
The #BlackoutTuesday movement that he participated in was quickly called out for its, as Variety’s Caroline Framke labeled it, “performative nonsense.”
“Posting a black square on an Instagram feed doesn’t actually help amplify Black voices,” she wrote.
Many pointed out that the deluge of black squares drowned out crucial information and overwhelmed photos and videos that needed to be spread. There was typically no call to action. There was no deference to Black voices. There was no political engagement, or donation, or circulation of vital content. Just a monolithic black column on social feeds populated by people and brands with a well-intentioned desire to prove that they’ve been watching the news and would like you to know they’re not racist.
“It’s easy to post a hashtag or a black square, and at a time when branding to reach as wide an audience as possible rules, that low level of engagement (and commitment) suits many comfortable corporations and celebrities just fine,” Franke wrote. “But an acknowledgment without matching action, or even just a strong and specific point of view, is barely worth the effort.”
One commenter pointed out just that on Brees’ post, writing, “You stand behind a line of mostly black men. Pass to black men. Hand off to black men. A locker room full of black men ready to go to war for you. And this? This is the bare f’n minimum.”
Following the backlash, Brees gave a statement to ESPN. "I love and respect my teammates and I stand right there with them in regards to fighting for racial equality and justice," he said. "I also stand with my grandfathers who risked their lives for this country and countless other military men and women who do it on a daily basis."
Brees’ black square post on Instagram was followed up Wednesday with an elementary-school maxim about how children aren’t born racist, it’s taught—no word if Hallmark has a copyright on that—with a flowery caption about innocent children giggling that ends, “There is a saying in every locker room I have been in… Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Acknowledge the problem, and accept the fact that we all have a responsibility to make it better. ‘Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.’”
Brees’ actions are practically deafening. His refusal to do the bare minimum ally’s work of listening is playing at a volume that can shatter an ear drum.
To have had years to consider the issue of kneeling; to have heard from the countless veterans and servicemen and women who openly support the act; to have been alive through this last week of protest, debate, and, finally, a watershed moment of Black voices being heard; to have the opportunity to consider your role as a leader and an ally at this moment, and then come out the other side by once again bastardizing the intent behind the act and continue to insult and discourage it?
It’s not even the excuse that you’re not understanding the social issues anymore. It’s willful, obstinate ignorance.
There’s been different versions of a meme going around talking about hypocrisy in reaction to protesting. Kaepernick and others tried the peaceful protest, they tried kneeling, and were told that was out of line and it was forbidden. Now the protests are dramatic, the anger tangible in the streets, and the protesters are being excoriated for not being peaceful. How can you talk about kneeling at something as inconsequential as an NFL game right now and not be on high-alert for that hypocrisy?
This is what they talk about when they criticize actions like posting a black square as performative.
Colin Kaepernick and any player or coach who kneels is asking the NFL to support them in what should be a simple endeavor: to care about the lives of Black people. But that would be disrespectful...to a flag.