While Brees was the New Orleans Saints’ quarterback, his deep connection to the predominantly Black city was threatened by his criticism of those who protested during the national anthem.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees announced his retirement on Sunday in a family announcement posted to Instagram on the 15th anniversary of his signing with the N.F.L. franchise. The news brought to a close the most elite career in Saints history and a major chapter in the culture of the city, which lovingly revolves around the team’s ups and downs.
Brees retired as a Super Bowl winner, the N.F.L.’s career leader in passing yards (80,358) and a shoo-in Hall of Famer — the only quarterback to have thrown for five 5,000-yard seasons. Still, the heartfelt send-offs on social media, from Saints fans and former teammates alike, tellingly teem with more personal odes than stat recitations.
Receiver Michael Thomas, Brees’s go-to target for the last half-decade, called him the “definition of a leader,” in a lengthy, emotional statement. “You are my hero and many others’,” Thomas wrote. He concluded: “You’re an icon worldwide, but you’re my brother every day. I love you and I appreciate you.”
It was a full-circle moment from Thomas, who despite his close relationship with Brees, or maybe because of it, called out the quarterback for comments he made after the police killed George Floyd, a Black man, last May. In June, Brees told an interviewer that while he supported social justice, he would oppose any N.F.L. protest that involved kneeling during the national anthem: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” he said in comments that reiterated his stance in 2016, when players around the league joined Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem.
In 2020, Brees clarified, then walked back the comment, in part because of the backlash from teammates like Thomas, who posted his own response on Twitter: “He don’t know no better.”
As a born and raised New Orleanian, a young Black man and a near-rabid Saints fan, I both hold unreserved joy over Brees’s career and clearly understand the lingering ambivalence about his conservatism among progressive fans. Some of them, including close friends in my Saints fans’ group text, never bought Brees’s public penance last season, when he went on a virtual learning trek of sorts, joining in on the organization’s team-wide pivot to embracing calls for social justice and personally donating money to related causes. A couple referred to it as a redemption tour with scornful irony.
The recompense was, however, enough for Thomas, who in a follow-up post on Twitter said of Brees: “He apologized and I accept it because that’s what we are taught to do as Christians. Now back to the movement! #GeorgeFloyd.”
A critical mass of us who were turned off by the quarterback’s comments about the flag seemed to end up with sentiments closer to Thomas’s — wondering if we couldn’t lend the man a bit of grace and allow for growth in others once they are called out for taboos.
After all, particularly for those of us who grew up in the Deep South, our list of friends and family members who only changed their minds about seminal social issues — segregation, interracial marriage, gay marriage, women’s rights and much else — once social mores had liberalized, is long. People can evolve. It’s also true that evolution is much more likely to happen if society is threatening to leave them behind.
Whether we — or Thomas and the rest of the team — would have been in such a forgiving mood if Brees wasn’t performing at an incredibly high level, despite his age, is a counterfactual we will never fully be able to test. Still, there is a more ineffable connection to the city that Brees sincerely earned, one that garnered a well of good will deep enough to squelch any serious threat to how he will be remembered: the connection between his comeback and New Orleans’s hard-fought rebirth.
As every televised segment recapping his career will show, when Brees came to our downtrodden franchise (habitually called the ’Aints), he was widely seen as damaged goods after tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina only months before his arrival had left New Orleans a deeply injured old river town, whose recovery many thought was unlikely, and that some actively bet against. In essence, each party — Brees, the fans rebuilding their homes and the failing franchise that nevertheless decided against relocation — was an underdog taking a chance on the others.
After all the parties were repaid with winning seasons, a championship and nationally televised games — more excuses to tailgate and party in a city that loves nothing more — a natural, defensive bond was formed. “You told me that if I loved New Orleans, you would love me back,” Brees’s open letter saying goodbye reads. “No truer words have ever been spoken.” Maybe our shared memories, those created at holiday dinner tables or in the Superdome on Sundays (with people just as complicated), are why we give Brees and others more slack than some think is merited.
At the height of my frustration with Brees, in 2016, I remember asking my mother — who desegregated her elementary school in New Orleans and was picketed for it (“Two, four, six, eight. We don’t want to integrate!”) — if it was right for me, for her, for our family, to keep cheering for Brees during games, to keep our season tickets, when he was being insensitive to our community’s grievances off the field?
“Tal,” she told me with a rueful smile and a dash of resignation, “I’m sure if I talked with Drew I’d tell him, ‘I appreciate you being a good quarterback and a leader in this city, but I really, really think you’re wrong about such and such,’ and I’m sure he’d tell me, ‘Well, Sheryl, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support and maybe we don’t see eye to eye on every issue, but I love this city and the Saints and hope we can make y’all fans proud.’”
It was a lesson in how empathy and compartmentalization can trickily coexist: How fandom, for many, isn’t strictly contingent on sharing your favorite athlete’s politics. With the growing sense that the stakes are too high for such a truce, that may be changing.
I met Brees soon after he’d taken the team to its first N.F.C. championship game in January 2007. He was roughly the age I am now and had come to meet a few middle schoolers in the rocky backyard of Lusher Charter School, an area that is now the Brees Family Field. I don’t remember caring about his politics, or any adults in my very civically active community caring much, either.
When I think of Drew Brees now, I don’t think of him, the man, as much as I think of how many hugs, high-fives, kisses, conversation starters, weekend celebrations, indelible memories and lifelong doses of hometown pride for which he is responsible.
There is no convenient equation that can take the balance of those sweeter realities and subtract from them the bitterness of his pre-2021 politics, to give us an answer on how we should feel. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe that’s just being human.