New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he would not support renewed NFL kneeling protests on Wednesday, saying to do so would be "disrespecting the flag" of the United States.
As a wave of protests against police brutality and racism sweeps across the US, many athletes have voiced support for former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who ignited controversy in 2016 by kneeling during the US national anthem.
Former San Francisco 49ers star Kaepernick, who said he was refusing to stand in order to draw attention to racial injustice, was later frozen out of the league and has been unemployed since being released in 2017.
President Donald Trump would later describe Kaepernick and other players who kneeled during the anthem as "sons of bitches" who should be fired.
Although the kneeling controversy has largely subsided in recent NFL seasons, the issue of player activism has returned following the US protests triggered by the death in police custody last week of an unarmed African-American man in Minneapolis.
It has led to speculation that more players may opt to "take a knee" during the upcoming NFL season.
Brees however told Yahoo on Wednesday that he remained firmly opposed to the protests.
"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said when asked about the possibility of protests.
"When I look at the flag of the United States, I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corp.
"Is everything right with our country right now? No, it is not. We still have a long way to go.
"But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity."
- 'We owe Kaepernick' -
Brees is the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader and one of the biggest names in the sport.
His comments drew a swift avalanche of criticism on social media, with many posters accusing him of misunderstanding the nature of Kaepernick's kneeling protest.
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas was among the first to respond, in a pair of tweets that appeared to be aimed at Brees.
"He don't know no better," Thomas wrote. "We don't care if you don't agree and whoever else how about that."
One Twitter user said the protests were about "racial inequality, human rights, the Bill of Rights, and police brutality."
"They are NOT abt the flag," the commenter added.
"You have shamefully chosen to mischaracterize the fight for justice and equity while draped in your flag," another user tweeted.
Brees' remarks came as Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll heaped praise on Kaepernick's original protests.
Carroll said society "owes a tremendous amount" to Kaepernick for taking a stand against police brutality and racial injustice.
"I think that there was a moment in time that a young man captured," Carroll told The Ringer's "Flying Coach" podcast.
"He stood up for something he believed in -- and what an extraordinary moment it was that he was willing to take," Carroll said, adding that the issues Kaepernick had drawn attention remained all too relevant today.
"We're not protecting our people. We're not looking after one another. We're not making the right choices," he said. "So I think it was a big sacrifice in the sense that a young man makes, but those are the courageous moments that some guys take.
"And we owe a tremendous amount to him for sure."