Something that makes Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints one of the greatest quarterbacks in National Football League history is his downfield vision. Not only does he seem to have an almost telepathic ability to know exactly who is open when, but he has what some analysts like to call “pocket awareness.” The “pocket” is the island in which the quarterback operates as he prepares to throw. His blockers do their best to keep him “clean,” that is, to keep onrushing defenders from disrupting, hitting or tackling Brees during (or after) the play. Brees helps out his helpers by being one of the best ever at moving within the pocket, helping him both avoid the rush and keep his downfield vision clear. At six feet tall, Brees is perhaps the shortest great quarterback, so his ability to make subtle shifts and hops and to step forward at the right moment to make his throws is crucial. He is not a runner, not a scrambler. He almost never leaves the pocket. It has worked out pretty well for him. Most Valuable Player, Super Bowl champion, record after record. A sure-fire Pro Football Hall of Fame player. He’s a lot of fun to watch.
Of course, this ability to live within the pocket and see the field develop does not necessarily translate into the social realm in which Brees must live along with the rest of us. No one is infallibly prescient. Commentators on our current crisis are trying to determine whether we are at a true watershed moment, an inflection point, whatever metaphor seems best. At the very least, this is a moment of clarity. About racial injustice, absolutely, but also about what kind of society Americans really want. Drew Brees is not alone in not being able to foresee the future. But like the rest of us, he has been caught at a moment of clarity for millions, and last week his pocket collapsed.
That’s because in the social realm, Brees is not in his passer’s pocket surrounded by his teammates who do their best not to let him down, but in Donald Trump’s pocket, and no one escapes it clean, it seems. Trump is the blocker who whiffs on his assignment and lets his quarterback get slammed to the turf, then blames the coach’s blocking scheme, the quarterback himself for not getting rid of the ball faster, his own painful bone spurs, and so on. When Brees was asked last week about the NFL protests for racial justice led by fellow quarterback Colin Kaepernick–they had been rebuked for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before games–he responded in the only way he really could, so it must have seemed, while remaining upright in Trump’s pocket. The question was like a group of rushing linemen forcing a point of decision: throw the pass now, and true, or eat the ball under the weight of history. Brees laid himself out. “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America,” he said in a Yahoo! Finance interview.
His response reveals what a morally desolate and increasingly lonely place Trump’s pocket really is. This is Trump’s position, and at a certain time—say, a couple of weeks ago—it might have played well enough and Brees would have had time to throw. But he is on his back, despite his later apologies, because Trump’s pocket can give him no protection when a moral choice is to be made. The dodge that Trump’s anti-Kaepernick argument makes may have placated enough of his base to work before, but we are not in any kind of recognizable “before.” Drew Brees had to decide whether to affirmatively stand up against anti-black racism, not just stand for the flag, or for all lives mattering. He needed a new playbook, but he wouldn’t be getting it from Trump.
Drew Brees is about a lot more than these comments or even his football exploits. He has made the city of New Orleans his home, played a role in helping the city recover from the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and has been active in charity work for years there. But this is how bad it is to be in Trump’s pocket: you can spend twenty years playing ball in a league that is 70 percent black, 15 living in a city that is majority black with major policing problems, and have no better answer to the moral question of our moment than Trump’s weak deflect to the flag issue. That so many people of color have served under that flag, and died for it despite the inequities they have faced in this country, makes the deflection all the more galling.
The protests we have seen following the George Floyd murder, following the Breonna Taylor shooting, following the Ahmaud Aubery lynching, etc. have forced the issue for Americans who have never had to identify themselves as white, even though the system under which they operate benevolently codes them so. The question being asked of white Americans has been boiled down to something elegantly simple: whose side are you on? You say you are not a racist. Okay. You haven’t owned slaves. You haven’t dumped mustard on the head of someone at a lunch counter in 1960. You learned which words never to say, to a black person’s face anyway. Hey, didn’t Martin Luther King say something about not judging by the color of one’s skin? Didn’t that other King, Rodney, say can’t we all get along? But now eyes are being opened. Concepts such as systemic racism and white privilege, born of academic research and then mocked when they reached the mainstream, are being graphically explained in post after post on social media. Crimes against the humanity of our citizens are being revealed, in harrowing detail, to the point that the Floyd murder pushed public conscience to the boiling point. And in perhaps the most remarkable development, in most cases whites are well represented, and in many form the majority, of the protest groups. And according to polling, around 70 percent of Americans think the protesters have a valid point.
So if that is happening, the question was going to come around to the NFL too, a league which blacklisted Kaepernick for four years despite his clear superiority to many quarterbacks getting a paycheck from the league, even as backups. A league where many owners are major Trump donors. The question was going to come to Brees as it has for the rest of white America.
His answer is what happens when white people who do not consider themselves racists support a party and a president whom racists support. At the point of moral clarity, when choices have to be made about which side of history they will be on, they are left with very little protection from the party’s and the president’s rhetoric. Can you authentically be against racism when you contribute funds to Republican campaigns? I don’t think you can, and not because everyone in the Republican Party is using the N-word, or because the other major party has such a great track record and all the answers. Either way, it is all too easy to support a structure and a system that shamelessly builds profits on the backs of the poor and people of color–never more evident than during the COVID-19 crisis we are still enduring. But Trump’s party thinks tax cuts for the wealthy, the destruction of the Affordable Care Act, a sub-living minimum wage, a draconian immigration program, restriction of the vote, and environmental deregulation are morally legitimate political positions. And second, you are joining forces with the Klan, the Nazis, and other openly, proudly racist entities who are fundamentally anti-black, anti-Jew, and more, and absolutely unapologetic about it. If you support those whom they support with your money or your vote, you are advancing their agenda whether you think it is yours or not. Who wins when the President wants to call antifa a terrorist organization but is mum about the KKK? Trump’s party needs to not only mend its political morals, it needs to clearly, through action, disavow the agenda of its white supremacist supporters.
And so Drew Brees had no way out when he was asked to take a moral stand. Trump’s pocket collapsed on him. The quarterback’s response was so tone-deaf that after Brees had been buried in a righteous pass rush, the NFL actually admitted it was wrong about the player protests. That’s another thing about Trump: he thinks admitting you are wrong is a sign of weakness. Brees, given his pushback on Trump’s criticism of the quarterback’s apology, is perhaps learning otherwise. Many other Americans are making reconsiderations as well.
Of course, in our politics, the quarterback is not Brees but Trump. He demands loyalty, wants to call all the plays, but blames others when they don’t work. He’s in a pocket of his own making, and several of his blockers are, shall we say, less enthusiastic than they once were. People, Pat Robertson rebuked the President last week for his heavy-handed tactics against protesters in Washington. A moment of moral clarity can do even that. Will Trump get sacked? That’s a question for November.