Quarterback/demigod Drew Brees is the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He also, for some curious reason, can’t get a solid contract offer from his team, the New Orleans Saints. The sports radio talking heads are yipping about whether the 33-year-old Brees is asking for too much. But this story is not about the pay. It’s the payback.
In fall 2010, it was Brees who led a procession onto the field in full view of the Sunday Night Football cameras with one finger in the air, a symbol that both teams—the Saints and Vikings—were actually one team united against ownership. The voice of the NFL establishment, Al Michaels, a proud political conservative, condemned it from the NBC booth, saying—with an eye roll, “There’s nothing like a labor statement to start the season.” As for the NFL owners, like the elephant who symbolizes their political affection, they don’t forget. But Brees proceeded without concern for any kind of payback. After all, he brought a Super Bowl victory to New Orleans. He was untouchable. As the team’s union representative and member of the NFLPA executive board, Brees remained outspoken and was one of the lead plaintiffs in the lockout lawsuits against the NFL. His former teammate Scott Fujita said to me, “In recent years Drew has taken some strong positions against league management. He doesn’t have to do this, but he chooses to because he knows it’s the right thing to do, and because he’s a natural leader who all players look to and respect. That’s quite rare for someone of his stature. He has great conviction.”
But conviction comes with a price, even for—as one union official described him to me—“the Captain America of quarterbacks.” The NFLPA has now formally requested the league to investigate whether the Saints are openly trying to punish Brees for his trade unionism. The union is citing CBA provision, Article 49, Section 1 which reads, “ No Discrimination: There shall be no discrimination in any form against any player by the NFL, the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.”
Brees’s other apostasy has been to defend current and former teammates Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove, Jonathan Vilma and Fujita on charges that they were part of a pay-to-injure program, otherwise known as “bountygate.” Brees is leveraging his fame to argue that he and his team are being targeted for the crime of being loud and proud union leaders during last year’s NFL lockout.