We were wrong to silence our players in the past and now encourage them to speak out and protest peacefully

I can’t believe that kneeling during the anthem is going to be in the mix as an issue during the home stretch of the campaign this fall in a year when we’re coping with a pandemic, an economic collapse, and widespread looting.

But it will. First Trump and then the NFL made that clear enough yesterday.

Let’s back up. This started a few days ago when Drew Brees told a reporter that he’ll never not find it disrespectful when people kneel during the national anthem. He was lambasted for that by critics, many of them fellow pro athletes, some of them his own teammates, who couldn’t understand why Brees can’t understand that the kneeling isn’t intended to show disrespect. It’s designed to remind onlookers that America’s promise of equality remains unfulfilled so long as police brutality towards black Americans continues to go largely unpunished. Brees quickly apologized and recanted — more than once. This thread will catch you up if you missed it on Thursday.

One of the players who took exception to Brees’s initial comments was his teammate, Michael Thomas. A “rogue” NFL employee reached out to Thomas with the idea of putting together a video featuring a number of star black NFL players. But the video wasn’t aimed at Brees; it was aimed at NFL management.

The key bit, per TMZ:

So, on behalf of the National Football League, this is what we, the players, would like to hear you state:

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.”

Thomas and his colleagues weren’t interested in piling on Brees. What they wanted was to seize the political moment to create space for protest by players once the league resumes play. The national uproar over the killing of George Floyd and the quick reconsideration by Brees offered them an opportunity to pressure the NFL to reconsider its Colin-Kaepernick-inspired policies discouraging kneeling or other protests during the anthem before games.

And the league noticed. Yesterday it tweeted out Thomas’s video from its own account with the caption, “Players, we hear you. #StrongerTogether”

Then Trump entered the fray:

This issue is right up his alley. Coronavirus, a struggling economy, and civil unrest are complicated issues; his ratings on handling two of them are poor and his ratings on the third could go south if yesterday’s jobs numbers don’t translate into durable momentum. Respect for the flag is comparatively simple and straightforward, appealing to most voters, and comes packaged in this case with some comfortable racial politics in the form of a white quarterback getting blasted by black colleagues for standing up for the Stars and Stripes.

Brees didn’t want any part of it, though. He’d already been shredded by fellow players for criticizing the kneeling. Imagine the response if he’d doubled down by siding against them with Donald Trump.

View this post on Instagram

To @realdonaldtrump Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week. We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform. We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history! If not now, then when? We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities. We must acknowledge the problems, identify the solutions, and then put this into action. The black community cannot do it alone. This will require all of us.

A post shared by Drew Brees (@drewbrees) on

“We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities” is a pretty pointed line coming from a guy who was on Team Stand Respectfully like 36 hours ago. Some of the players who’d been criticizing him before applauded his change of heart, though, including Thomas:

The post prompted [Malcolm] Jenkins, Brees’ harshest critic at the time, to come forward and thank the quarterback “for listening.”

“Drew, as much as your comments hurt me and many other people, I appreciate you for listening because being heard is a big part of it,” he said in a brief Instagram story…

“A big part of leadership is admitting when you are wrong, and correcting your mistake,” linebacker Demario Davis wrote on Twitter. “A model that All of America can follow, admit the wrong done to the black community, fix the issues and WE ALL move forward together. Let’s all stand together now and find solutions.”…

Wide receiver Michael Thomas also tweeted Brees’ response to Trump with the caption “MY QB.”

Later in the day NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally responded to the video Thomas had posted the day before. I assume he would have done so even if Trump hadn’t said anything, but being suddenly forced to choose between siding with the president and siding with his league’s players left him with no alternative. Watch this — and note that he repeats the key bit from Thomas’s video that I quoted up above (nearly) verbatim.

So Kaepernick is vindicated in the end, at least according to NFL management. Now we’re all set up for the inevitable conclusion when/if play resumes in September: *Lots* of players, Drew Brees probably included, kneeling during the anthem; Trump ranting about it online; and Goodell looking constipated (or more constipated than usual) amid the political and cultural fallout. Now that he’s made this pledge, though, there’s no going back on it no matter what sort of backlash emerges among conservative fans. He’s all-in on anthem protests. And, I guess, so are Joe Biden and the Democrats, as they’ll be forced to side with the players against Trump as well. Let the chips fall where they may.

Maybe it’ll work out okay for Goodell and Biden. Americans are more receptive than they used to be to complaints about police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s killing. And fans are so starved for sports after months of abstinence due to the pandemic that they might be willing to overlook any political display in the name of enjoying some football. If Kaepernick wants to come out there and burn Old Glory at midfield before the game, whatever. Just make it fast so that kickoff starts on time.

In lieu of an exit question, read conservative Kimberly Ross on how her views of Kaepernick’s protest have evolved in the wake of Floyd’s death: “[M]y apologies, Colin Kaepernick. You weren’t wrong for shining a spotlight on injustice. You used the platform at your disposal and, with a calm, peaceful action, sent a message.”

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