New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees says his controversial comments about kneeling during the U.S. national anthem marked a missed opportunity to show support for efforts to advance social and racial justice.
"To think for a second that New Orleans or the state of Louisiana or the Black community would think that I was not standing with them for social justice, that completely broke my heart. It was crushing. Never ever would I feel that way," Brees said Saturday in a statement, according to ESPN's Mike Triplett.
"Now, I recognize that I missed an opportunity that day. I had an opportunity to talk about and emphasize the social injustices that exist for our Black community and our need as a country to support them and to advocate for systemic change.
"And my lack of awareness in that moment hurt a lot of people."
Brees said in June he "will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America" after being asked about the possibility of players kneeling during the anthem during the 2020 NFL season.
The quarterback's comments drew strong criticism across the NFL, and he later apologized for his "insensitive" remarks. Several of his teammates publicly accepted his apologies, and Brees said he's since had positive conversations with players regarding his comments.
"I will always support and advocate for the Black and brown communities in the fight for social justice - always," Brees said. He added: "I'm the same person now that I've always been. I'm someone who cares deeply for people in my community, New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, people everywhere.
"I'm someone who will always address the inequities and the disparities that exist. I'm someone who has great empathy for those who are hurting, struggling, or victims of injustice. And I'm someone who feels a great sense of responsibility to serve and to lead and to bring true equality to everyone."
Brees said in 2016 he agreed with Colin Kaepernick's message in protesting police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling during the anthem, but not with a method he considered disrespectful to the U.S. flag.
The 41-year-old still plans to stand for the anthem during the upcoming season, but he respects the choice of anyone who decides to protest.
"I acknowledge and respect anyone who chooses to kneel or any other form of peaceful protest to bring attention to the social injustices and systemic racism that so many have endured and continue to endure in our country," Brees said.
The NFL is planing multiple social justice initiatives in 2020, including playing the Black national anthem before Week 1 games and stenciling anti-racism messages on end-zone borders for all home openers.