Let’s set aside, for a moment at least, how ridiculous it is that nearly four years after Colin Kaepernick first kneeled on a football field there is still fundamental confusion for many people as to why he did it or what it symbolized.
Instead, let’s focus on the swift rebuke of Saints quarterback Drew Brees for his comments Wednesday about “disrespecting the flag.” That at least gets us closer to where our attention should be.
There weren’t just a couple of voices offering criticism of Brees and his misunderstanding of Kaepernick’s protest and the current state of affairs in our country. They came from far and wide, black and white.
In many cases, the calls were coming from within the Saints’ own house. Teammate after teammate ripped Brees — including two of his receivers, Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Malcolm Jenkins posted two videos to Instagram — one he has since deleted in which he used an expletive while telling Brees to shut up.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers said on Instagram: “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.”
Brees apologized Thursday morning, but it still figures to be quite a tense Zoom call when the Saints gather for their next team meeting.
And as much as it might pain Vikings fans: Rodgers is spot-on in two ways, and both get to the heart of the NFL’s danger — and opportunity — in this moment.
First, of course, is the truth about the heart of Kaepernick’s peaceful protest. It was about police brutality, and his particular method of expression was influenced by none other than a former member of the Green Berets.
The intention was twisted then, distracting from the message. Plenty of that came either explicitly or implicitly from the NFL, with none of the league’s 32 teams employing Kaepernick in 2017, 2018 or 2019. As the Bears’ Akiem Hicks said in regards to that: “We signed Mike Glennon.”
A large number of powerful NFL voices, Rodgers included, seem intent on making sure that doesn’t happen this time around — that the focus stays on social justice reform, and that the league is held accountable both for what it has done and what it will do. Their collective voices can be summarized thusly: Everyone should have been listening to Kaepernick all along, and they sure better be listening now.
Hence, the NFL’s danger and opportunity. The danger: Ignoring the signal that there has been a shift in thinking — or at least a shift in the number and variety of players willing to speak out. The opportunity: Embracing it and actually taking steps to do better with both actions and words.
Which brings us to the second point Rodgers made: Words are nice, but they’re not enough. Plenty of teams and leagues are making statements in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody, but players (and plenty of fans) are going to be watching to see what actions are taken.
And they are in no mood for token gestures or made-for-the-camera moments, if an example from the world of college football can offer any clues. Florida State coach Mike Norvell said in an interview that he “went back and forth individually with every player” to discuss Floyd’s death and its aftermath.
Star defensive lineman Marvin Wilson had a different interpretation of the communication and shared it on Twitter. He wrote: “We got a generated text that was sent to everybody. There was no one on one talk between us and coach. This is a lie and me and my teammates as a whole are outraged and we will not be working out until further notice.”
The sum total of all this reflects the desire of a growing number of athletes to be at the center of societal and institutional change — and a willingness to speak up against the very institutions of which they are a part. If a face-of-the-league type player like Brees isn’t exempt from criticism, nobody is.
The NFL isn’t the only entity that needs to take note, but the league’s history suggests it could be at a crossroads. We’ll know soon enough what the NFL decides to do with its opportunity.