Drew Brees, the star quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, apologized Thursday after facing intense criticism for saying that he considered it disrespectful for players to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality.
Brees made the initial comments after he was asked in an interview how the N.F.L. should respond if the season were to start and players resumed kneeling during the anthem like Colin Kaepernick did beginning in 2016, when he was the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees said in the interview, with Yahoo Finance. He added that when he looked at the flag and stood with his hand over his heart during the anthem, he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II.
“And is everything right with our country right now?” Brees said. “No. It’s not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution.”
Brees has made similar comments before. In 2016, he criticized Kaepernick for sitting during the anthem, saying it was “disrespectful to the American flag” and “an oxymoron” because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.
But on Wednesday, Brees’s comments prompted fresh outrage, as the nation confronted a wave of protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer pinned him by the neck.
A day later, he apologized on Instagram, saying that his comments were insensitive and “missed the mark.” He also asked for forgiveness and said that he took full responsibility for his words.
“In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused,” he said. “Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy.”
“This is where I stand,” he said, “I stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference.”
Brees said that Americans, including himself, had not done enough to fight for equality or “to truly understand the struggles and plight” of African-Americans.
“I recognize that I should do less talking and more listening,” Brees said, “and when the black community is talking about their pain, we all need to listen.”
In the sports world, Floyd’s death has renewed attention on Kaepernick and his campaign for racial and social justice. The quarterback, who has been without a job in football, reached a settlement with the league last year over his accusation that he had been denied a job because he had knelt during the anthem before games.
Some of those who criticized Brees’s remarks were prominent professional sports figures, including members of his own team.
LeBron James wrote on Twitter that Brees’s remarks had not come as a surprise to him. He added that Kaepernick’s protest had absolutely “nothing to do with the disrespect of” the nation’s flag and the “soldiers (men and women) who keep our land free.”
Several commentators said the remarks were particularly insensitive, coming from a white quarterback in a league in which three-quarters of the players are African-American yet almost every owner and top team executive is white. Brees, a Super Bowl champion who holds a number of N.F.L. records, is also a major star in a city where a majority of residents are black.
Josh Hart, who plays in the N.B.A. for the New Orleans Pelicans, said that kneeling during the anthem was “never about disrespecting the armed forces.”
“It’s about police brutality and racial injustices in our country,” he wrote on Twitter. “This country can’t be unified if African Americans are unjustly killed in the street because of the color of their skin.”
Brees later defended his remarks, reiterating why he believed it was important to stand for the anthem.
“I believe we should all stand for the national anthem and respect our country and all those who sacrificed so much for our freedoms,” Brees told ESPN in a text message. “That includes all those who marched for women’s suffrage in the 1920s and all those who marched in the civil rights movements and continue to march for racial equality. All of us … EVERYONE … represent that flag. Same way I respect all the citizens of our country … no matter their race, color, religion.”
Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reporting.