Sullivan: On D-Day anniversary, remember patriotism has many forms

Jerry Sullivan

Today is the 76th anniversary of D-Day, when the allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany in World War II.

For the first time in 75 years, there will be no ceremony on those beaches, no veterans of the landing at the site. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, France has banned public gatherings of more than 10 people.

The few surviving Americans who took part in the Normandy invasion will watch events by livestream. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to be rocked by protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal killing at the hands of a policeman on May 25 in Minneapolis.

Instead of reflecting on the events of D-Day, Americans are left to debate some regrettable and divisive comments uttered by a sainted NFL quarterback, Drew Brees.

Brees was asked in a Yahoo! interview about his role as a team leader and league spokesman in a time of protest, and specifically his feelings about Colin Kaepernick.

"Well, I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” Brees replied.

“Let me just tell you what I see or what I feel when the National Anthem is played and when I look at the flag of the United States. I envision my two grandfathers who fought for this country during World War II.”

Brees said standing and “showing respect” to the flag with your hand over your heart demonstrated unity and showed that the players could all be “part of the solution.”

There was a withering and immediate reaction, much of it from black pro athletes and even from some of Brees’s own teammates. LeBron James weighed in on Twitter:

“Wow … You literally still don’t understand why Kap was kneeling on one knee?? Has absolute nothing to do with the disrespect of the flag or our soldiers who keep our land free. My father-in-law was one of those.”

Brees went into abrupt retreat. He apologized to his New Orleans teammates in an hour-long virtual team meeting. He followed up with a long apology on Instagram in which he said he’s not an enemy but an ally, and that he wants to see justice for Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other African Americans who have been victimized by police.

Look, I believe he’s sorry. Brees became a civic hero when he went to New Orleans after Katrina and reached out to the devastated black community in that city. There’s never been any evidence that the man is a racist.

But LeBron James was dead-on. It’s astonishing to think that Brees could make such tone-deaf comments in the aftermath of the Floyd killing, that he could still default to a narrow, simplistic understanding of Kaepernick’s stand, which was about the very issues people all over the nation have been protesting for the last 10 days.

Kaepernick wasn’t protesting the military or the flag or the national anthem. The flag is a patriotic symbol. Americans can interpret that according to their own beliefs. He believed that the country hadn’t lived up to the principles of equality the flag is supposed to represent.

The flag stands for more than the armed forces, though the NFL makes it difficult to distinguish when it crams military patriotism down fans’ throats every Sunday.

Others made the distinction at the time, although the President wasn’t among them, instead using the issue to inflame his base and to dismiss the NFL players who supported Kaepernick by kneeling as “sons of bitches.”

Lorenzo Alexander, the former Bill, was one of the players who knelt before a game in September 2017, after President Trump made his comments. Alexander was no radical, but he knew that SOB was a racial trope used against blacks in the segregated South.

“I knew what he was talking about,” Alexander told me this week. “I think most black people understood what he was saying and have understood who he is. The worse things get, the more you see his lack of leadership.”

There were veterans who supported Kaepernick’s protest. Police rallied for him in Brooklyn in 2017. Players from families with military backgrounds — like the Bennett brothers, Martellus and Michael — joined the protests and said it wasn’t intended to disrespect the military of the flag.

By falling back on the notion that Kaepernick and the other kneelers had disrespected the military, Brees aligned himself with the white establishment and people who want to dismiss black protest as somehow illegitimate.

Brees seems contrite. He said you could see it in his eyes. But in the eyes of African Americans, he comes across as just another person who is outwardly sympathetic to the cause — hey, they don’t see color! — but reveals something different when they bare their soul.

It helps to know your history. Does Brees know that black soldiers were treated like second-class citizens in WWII? That white soldiers would sometimes cross the street rather than salute a black officer, or walk en masse out of an officers club when a black naval officer walked in?

Does Brees know that Jackie Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of an Army bus, six weeks after D-Day? Joe Louis also refused to sit at the back of a bus in the Army. A black soldier, Isaac Woodward, was beaten by police and blinded for life, while in uniform, after his discharge from the Army in 1946.

Sorry if it offends anyone to read this on the anniversary of D-Day, but when Americans insist on associating patriotism with the military, it helps to understand why African Americans might not have such a romantic view.

It’s something to keep in mind when the NFL returns in the fall. There’s likely to be some protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing. If players protest, consider that it's not about the flag or the military.

If you see a player kneeling during the anthem, try to remember Dereck Chavin doing it on poor George Floyd’s neck.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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