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Saints’ Demario Davis says Drew Brees’ sudden change of heart is for real

What sparked such an abrupt about-face? Pressure.

In four days, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees went from alienating nearly every black professional athlete in America to being hailed as a hero for calling out the president of the United States.

In response to President Donald Trump’s tweet on June 5 equating kneeling with disrespecting the American flag, Brees said kneeling was “not an issue about the American flag. It never has been.”

He added: “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.”

On June 6, Brees’ wife, Brittany, doubled down in an Instagram post on the Brees Dream Foundation page. She quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and said, “WE ARE THE PROBLEM.”

What sparked such an abrupt about-face? Pressure.

Last week in an interview with Yahoo Finance, Brees was asked about kneeling during the national anthem. He said he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”

Within hours of the Yahoo Finance interview being posted, Brees was hit by an all-out blitz of criticism. He was called out by fellow teammates, other NFL players, celebrities. Even in New Orleans, where Brees is — or was — king, protesters in the street cursed Brees’ name, chanting, “[expletive] Drew Brees.”

Brees made a similar misstep in 2017, linking players kneeling with disrespecting the flag. This despite being told by Colin Kaepernick and others that kneeling was a protest against police brutality, systemic racism and economic inequality.

This time Brees made his comments as demonstrators throughout the world protested not only the killing of George Floyd by police, but the rise of authoritarianism and the crackdown on civil liberties in the name of law and order.

How could a player who has had black teammates and friends since college, who has been lauded for his work in the community, be so tone-deaf?

For a number of those teammates, Brees’ response to the president is evidence that finally, he gets it.

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis celebrates after a defensive stop against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Oct. 6, 2019.

Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

For Saints linebacker Demario Davis, Brees’ pushback was heartfelt and will be impactful. Davis, an eight-year NFL veteran, has been Brees’ teammate since 2018, when he joined the Saints as a free agent.

“That was one of the boldest actions I’ve ever seen in my life,” Davis told me by phone Saturday evening. Davis said Brees’ unwavering directness and clarity in contradicting the president was not a publicity stunt, was not a photo op. He said that no NFL player was going to “speak out against the president for no photo op.”

“That’s the biggest action that you can have. You know how much courage it takes to speak out against the president? To be on the opposite side of the president? To correct the president — 90% of America ain’t got that much courage,” Davis said.

Davis added: “He came out and said it: ‘I made it about the flag, and it wasn’t about the flag. It’s about these issues. Let’s focus on those issues.’ ”

Davis is absolutely right. This is not about Brees vs. the president. To an extent, this is not about Floyd. They are symptoms of a much larger global issue about authoritarianism cracking down on dissent, stifling human freedom. That’s why demonstrators have taken to the street.

When it comes to NFL locker rooms, composed mostly of black players, white athletes find themselves in the unique position of being in the minority. It’s as if they have fallen through Alice’s looking glass.

White athletes are forced to be aware of issues affecting the black community, even if they don’t agree on solutions and tactics.

Davis was born in Brandon, Mississippi. His father was a career enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army and a combat veteran. Davis has had white teammates throughout his high school, college and professional career. He has seen the impact on white teammates of being a locker room minority.

“At least in terms of having an understanding of hearing the problems, rationalizing and trying to process how we think and how we are the way that we are, because they’re forced to see it every day,” he said.

Most African Americans are used to working in predominantly white spaces, to the extent that many times that we become anesthetized to being in the minority.

“You learn a lot about white culture. You learn how it operates because you have to try to assimilate to that or integrate into that,” Davis said. “It’s the same in the locker room for a white person. They’ve been playing around black people their whole lives. They have an inside look. That’s how you’re able to have that unity inside those locker rooms.”

Brees was born in Dallas and raised in Austin, Texas, where he attended Westlake High School. The African American student population at Westlake was less than 1%. Brees attended Purdue University and competed in the Big Ten, where black players were a dominant force.

“White athletes, white coaches that get to deal with a lot of black people on a regular basis, they get it,” Davis said. “Where a lot of people are not able to understand on that level because they haven’t spent that much time. It’s like me trying to speak about the Bible. I ain’t spent no time reading it.”

The reason it took Brees so long to understand the reality of police violence is the same reason it took hundreds of thousands of white protesters to grasp that reality: the vivid display of police killing defenseless African Americans.

Especially at times like these, when acts of police violence against civilians — especially black people — have become prominently recorded, white players in the NFL and NBA have little choice but to be circumspect. Regardless of their relationship to law enforcement, the white players have teammates whose friends and relatives have been the victims of brutality. They know that the stories are not fiction, are not made up.

At a pragmatic level, a Brees, a Tom Brady, an Aaron Rodgers realize they owe a significant measure of their success to their black teammates. What impressed me about the way Brees handled his misstep is that he went beyond an apology and embraced a movement. “Drew missed the mark but most of America’s missed the mark,” Davis said. “You can’t ostracize him and put the blame of 400 years of our problems on this man. There are some that are much more worthy of that spot than him. I’m from Mississippi, so I’ve seen the deep racists.”

The bigger picture is less about black players’ impact on white players than their impact on the league. Just as Brees pushed back against the president, several black NFL players are pushing back against the NFL’s expression of support.

Last week, the league issued public statements about standing with the black community. The statements ignore the fact the NFL practices its own brand of relative apartheid: Black players do the heavy lifting, but power and control are in the hands of whites.

Far from standing with the black community, the NFL appears to be kneeling on the aspirations of its black community of athletes.

“For the NFL to come out and say we stand beside our black players and we’re about the black community — OK, that’s words,” said Davis, one of several NFL athletes taking a leadership role in converting the black NFL presence into power. “Be the example.”

Davis, along with Benjamin Watson, Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long, is part of a group of players in direct conversation with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about improving how the league deals with issues affecting the black community and communities of color.

Far from standing with the black community, the NFL appears to be kneeling on the aspirations of its black community of athletes.

This has been a difficult task in a league in which many team owners support the president. Beginning in 2016, when Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, many owners threatened players who knelt with disciplinary actions.

But like Brees, the NFL is feeling the heat and has felt compelled to pledge public support to the African American community. In one incredible statement, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said there would be no NFL without black players.

Words. Mere words. Where are the deeds?

More than 70% of the league’s players are African American, but the power dynamic is virtually devoid of any black presence.

“It’s been 70% or more black for a long time,” Davis said. “Yet, that is not reflected in head coaching. That’s not reflected in GMs [general managers]. It’s not reflected in ownership. That’s what we need to address. If you’re going to put out a word to the world, that you stand beside your black players, are you standing beside them as in you are a slave master standing by your slave, or are you in a true partnership?”

Davis is part of a core of veteran players who want to use the leverage of numbers to compel the NFL to do business with black vendors. Black businesses have largely been shut out of the lucrative businesses attached to professional leagues and teams within those leagues.

“There are so many jobs around the game of football that black businesses aren’t even a part of,” Davis said. “Who are we sourcing out concession stands to? Who are we sourcing out the companies that come in and work on the stadiums? Who are we sourcing out who handles our distribution? Who’s handling our travel? How many black businesses are we using to do these things? That’s how you put money into the black community.”

It remains to be seen whether black athletes will be able to compel teams and leagues to change the economic relationship to the black community. This much is certain: When it comes to making sure their teammates have the option to be on the right side of history, black players have changed many hearts and minds.

Ask Drew Brees.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.