When Drew Brees was asked Wednesday what he thought about the prospect of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality during the upcoming season, the future Hall of Fame quarterback added fuel to an already charged issue, telling Yahoo! Finance, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”
To many of Brees’ New Orleans Saints’ teammates, including star defensive end Cam Jordan, the quarterback’s framing of the kneeling gesture initiated by then-49ers QB Colin Kaepernick four years ago landed like a punch to the gut.
Jordan, who on Wednesday evening attended a packed Black Lives Matter rally at New Orleans’ Duncan Plaza held in the wake of the videotaped killing of George Floyd while in the custody of the Minneapolis police, was shocked by Brees’ comments, which echoed the erroneous charges often levied by critics depicting the gesture as anti-military and unpatriotic. And while Jordan and Brees had a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon to work through their differences, it’s clear that things won’t be completely healed when the team reports to training camp later this summer.
“I feel like I gave him my perspective — it was almost like I was trying to force him to walk a mile in my shoes — and I hope it gets through,” Jordan told NFL.com Wednesday night. “I hope it gets through to my guy Drew, because that’s what he is … he’s been my guy since I entered the league (in 2011).
“He’s been the leader and a guy I can rely on — on the field. Well, off the field has to align. I can’t allow people to tippy-toe on the line of this issue. You can’t play both sides on this one. We’re fighting to end social injustice, and you’re either with us or you aren’t.”
Jordan, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, wasn’t the only Saints player to rebuke Brees publicly. Safety Malcolm Jenkins and All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas also took issue with the quarterback’s stance, which Brees attributed to his regard for “my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II.” And Jordan conceded that the fallout will likely carry over to the start of training camp, if not beyond.
“I mean, of course it will,” Jordan said. “In our locker room, we hold people accountable. I’ve already talked to 10 to 12 teammates, and a coach or two, and with the man himself (Brees). You have to put him legitimately in our shoes, and at the same time, I don’t want to force feed him. I want to walk in his shoes, too. [The national anthem] is a source of pride for him. But he has to know what that act is all about, and what it really represents.”
Jordan, an African-American, said he understood that Brees was attempting to convey his personal feelings about the anthem and the symbolism it provokes. Yet from Jordan’s perspective, kneeling to support the rights of oppressed Americans and taking pride in the flag and military are not mutually exclusive.
“I understand that Drew has military ties, and he went on to explain that [in our conversation], but the first nine words (‘I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag’) are the most hurtful,” Jordan said. “He’s creating the emotional illusion that everyone who takes a knee is disrespecting the flag, when we’ve spent years trying to explain what the protest is really about.
“This flag is supposed to protect all of us. I support the military, too — I’ve done multiple USO Tours. My grandfather was in the Army and later served as the first black highway patrolman in Phoenix. My uncle was in the Navy. And my wife’s dad was in the Marines.
“I know Drew is a phenomenal person. I know he gives back to the community. I know what’s in his heart and how he pours out his heart. But maybe I didn’t get clear enough about what the movement meant in 2017, when we all knelt in unison in London.”
That full-team display of unity, which occurred before a 2017 game against the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium, came in the wake of President Donald Trump’s derisive comments about Kaepernick at an Alabama rally, during which the nation’s chief executive told supporters, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now?’ “
Trump, who less than two months earlier had described a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as an event that included “very fine people, on both sides” has continued to make racially divisive statements. In recent days, he has made references to shooting and death on his Twitter feed aimed at those protesting the mistreatment of African-Americans by law enforcement officers following the disturbing video of Floyd’s killing.
On Tuesday, Saints coach Sean Payton advocated for the prospect of replacing Trump by electing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in November. Payton tweeted photos of Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, an African-American who in February was chased and shot dead while jogging in an upscale Georgia neighborhood, writing, “Were Murdered not Killed on Video. How many have we not seen? 22 weeks from today for change.”
Jordan, too, regards the upcoming election as an important vehicle for provoking change. While attending rallies at Duncan Plaza the past two days, he has had numerous discussions with fellow protesters, many of whom recognized him despite the fact that he was wearing a hoodie and two masks (part of the CDC-endorsed protocol for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic).
“It’s been so empowering,” Jordan said. “The numbers have doubled each day, or maybe even tripled, and today the crowd was maybe 60 percent white, which is uplifting.
“I’m pushing narratives of, ‘Let’s vote.’ If we can find a way to create a system of change, and we need to do that by electing the right people at all levels of government. I clearly don’t believe in this president — I call him, ‘Impeached 45,’ because he was impeached, but just not removed — and I fully believe that every vote counts.
“This rally is designed to try to bring an end to police brutality as a whole and to try to trigger reforms. They’ve done some good work already in Minneapolis (where Floyd was killed), but we need more than just Minneapolis. I’m trying to get people to register to vote, and to follow through. Because by not voting, you’re doing everybody who fought for the right to vote a disservice.”
Jordan, who played through a painful core muscle injury for the final five games of the 2019 season and underwent surgery two days after the Super Bowl, said he is nearly recovered from the injury.
“Rehab’s almost finished,” he said. “I’m about 95 percent, damn near clear. My family’s healthy. God is good. I’m happy.”
Yet in the wake of Floyd’s killing and the ensuing unrest, Jordan said, he and his wife, Nikki, have been unnerved while pondering the notion of how best to parent their 4-year-old son, Caleb, through the crisis.
“My son is 4, and as much as my wife and I have openly talked about these issues, he’s going to have to know these things,” Jordan said. “I talked to a (white) coach who also has young kids, and he said, ‘We don’t even throw on CNN; we’re just keeping it all Disney so the kids don’t have to watch.’
“I don’t have that luxury. Our son barely understands the color barrier as it is, and in an ideal world, he shouldn’t have to. But we’re going to have to have the same type of conversations with him that I had with my mom beginning when I was 6 or 7.
“As black people in America, we have to go over things that others might not think about, things that still resonate: What do you do when you get pulled over? Make sure you completely turn off your music, and have your license with you at all times, not just when you drive. If you shop, always have a receipt with you. Things like that.”
It was precisely this perspective that Jordan said he tried to share with Brees on their phone call Wednesday. And while he’s not sure that fences were mended completely, Jordan believed the conversation was valuable and necessary.
“Things have to be talked about,” Jordan said. “If I’m not my brother’s keeper, I’m doing a disservice to him and to our teammates.”