In my Troy Media column this week, I talked about how we are falling well short of our ideals in this country:

America is clearly broken.

We’ve struggled from the beginning of this nation to live up to our ideals.

From our Pledge of Allegiance: “… with liberty and justice for all …”

From our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”

From our Constitution: To “establish justice”

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor (who would’ve turned 27 this week), along with many other black Americans, at the hands of police officers have been senseless and hard to fathom. My heart aches because it seems like we’re still far away from the equality and justice outlined in our country’s most important documents. It doesn’t feel like we’ve made anywhere near the progress we should have since the civil rights protests in the sixties or the Rodney King beating in 1991 in Los Angeles.

That said, I feel I must address another cornerstone of Americanism in which I think we are coming up short as a nation: The First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Those 45 words are, to a large degree, what separates us from most countries on this planet. Thousands of brave Americans have died protecting the rights — most notably, free speech — guaranteed to us all in the First Amendment. Being American means having the right to state your opinion, no matter how unpopular it might be.

The spirit behind free of speech – as granted in the First Amendment — was beautifully captured by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (in a quote often erroneously attributed to Voltaire): “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

The First Amendment was designed to provide all Americans with the right to express what’s in their hearts and minds. And when I say all Americans, I mean everyone, including Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and Drew Brees.

Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, was eviscerated on social media — and in the streets, where protesters burned his jersey — this week for saying during an interview that he doesn’t agree with kneeling protests during the playing of the national anthem because he thinks they are a sign of disrespect toward our flag and our military veterans.

Brees’ comments were met with hate. He was told to just shut up. That’s wrong.

Let’s start with this: Brees is far from a dreg of society. He has won the NFL’s prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award for outstanding volunteer and charity work. He’s given millions of dollars to charities and other non-profits, including this past March, when he and his wife gave $5 million to a host of charities that will deliver 10,000 meals per day throughout Louisiana to help those in need during the Covid-19 pandemic. His actions throughout his career have spoken pretty loudly about what kind of person he is.

That said, in the interview with Yahoo Finance that sparked the outcry, Brees showed very little awareness and understanding of the plight and pain of black Americans in this country, many of whom are his teammates. (Hasn’t he ever talked to his teammates about their experiences in America, e.g., how it feels to get pulled over for Driving While Black?)

“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” said Brees in the interview. He went on to say that when he looks at the flag he envisions his “two grandfathers who fought for this country during World War II, one in the army and one in the Marine Corps, both risking their lives to protect our country and trying to make our country and this world a better place.”

Four years after Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem before NFL games, Brees appears to remain clueless as to why Kaepernick, and many other players, felt the need to peacefully protest by kneeling. Note to Brees: Kaepernick made it clear that his kneeling protest had nothing to do with the flag, the military or war vets. It was a protest about police brutality, systemic racism and social injustice in the United States.

“There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust and people aren’t being held accountable for,” said Kaepernick back in August of 2016.

“That’s something that needs to change. Our country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it’s not happening for all right now. … I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone away and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening.”

But back to Brees. If he looks at the flag and thinks about his grandfathers, and other vets, who served in the military that’s his prerogative. Everyone’s free to look at the flag, and determine what it means to them, in their own way. The flag is a symbol that represents what each of us thinks it represents. There is no directive written into the Constitution telling us what we must think the flag stands for. Thankfully.

Personally, when I look at the flag, I see a symbol that represents the American ideals written into our Pledge of Allegiance, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, most notably the First Amendment. To me, when I think of the men and women who fought for us in wars, I think of them fighting for those American ideals.

This past week, a lot of people have chosen to exercise their First Amendment rights to speak out and protest against social injustice, systemic racism and police brutality in this country. They see the country falling well short of its ideals. That’s their right. I strongly support them — and have joined them — in exercising that right.

But I also support Brees’ right to free speech. To say what the flag means to him. And I support his right to say he disagrees with kneeling protests during the national anthem.

Here’s my overarching fear: I’m afraid we’re devolving into a country that only supports free speech for those we agree with.

For example, consider conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, and the gall she showed this week by coming out in support of Drew Brees’ political comments after blasting LeBron James in 2018 for stating his poltical views.

Here’s Ingraham on Brees: “He’s allowed to have his view about what kneeling and the flag means to him. I mean, he’s a person. He has some worth, I would imagine.”

Now, here’s Ingraham on James:

“It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball,” she said. “Keep the political comments to yourselves. … Shut up and dribble.”

Are you serious Laura? Do you not see a double standard there?

After thousands called Ingraham on the carpet for her hypocrisy, she came out with this statement:

“I think in order to heal and shed light on gross injustices, our country needs more dialogue, not less,” said Ingraham. “And we need more respect, not retribution.”

That might be the most cogent thing she’s ever said. I hope she follows those words going forward and applies them to all Americans.

That said, I feel the same way about people who support LeBron James’ right to express his views but hypocritically excoriate Brees for expressing his.

People across social media, including at least one teammate, have told Brees to “shut up!” for simply stating what the flag means to him and because he disagrees with kneeling protests during the anthem.

Shut the f*** up!,” said Brees’ Saints teammate Malcolm Jenkins.

“I see Drew Brees do his part to keep black folk down. You’re a straight sucker, man,” tweeted former NFL star Ed Reed.

“You can’t just be saying s*** out your ass,” said former NBA player Stephen Jackson, in calling for the silencing of Brees.

Come on people! This isn’t that hard. The First Amendment is pretty straightforward. Everyone has the right to free speech. Not just those we agree with.

People have been saying all week that we need more dialogue, that we need to start listening to each other. Well, that means listening to everyone. If everyone who has views we don’t like has to “shut up” this is going to be an awful quiet country. And if people are forced to keep their true thoughts inside, those thoughts will fester, injustices will continue, we’ll have more violence, and we’ll get nowhere.

If you don’t like where Drew Brees is coming from, let him know why, build your case, and share your thoughts in the marketplace of ideas. Better yet, if you can talk to him face to face do it. (Brees expressed openness to listening to everyone and a desire to be part of the solution in an apology following his Yahoo Finance interview.)

Just don’t spend time and energy working to silence him. That’s antithetical to the First Amendment. The First Amendment can’t be another casualty of our times.

As I wrote earier this week, if we’re going to make progress on the issues of systemic racism, police brutality and social and economic injustice in this country, we’re going to need to get a lot of white people on board, especially white people with power and influence. People like Drew Brees.

We need to hear — and work with — all voices. Do we need more dialogue? Yes. Do we need to listen better? Yes. Do we need to listen with both our ears and hearts? Most definitely.

If we’re going to move forward in a positive direction, the First Amendment can’t be reserved for only those we deem completely woke.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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