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These days, the intersection of sports and online shaming is a very special place

It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to public mea culpas, but Drew Brees, Vic Fangio and others seem to be listening and learning a thing or two. Thank goodness for the army of upstanding young “bullies” who are showing many of us how it’s done.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers
Brees was taken to the woodshed — in the best way — after his initial comments on kneeling during the national anthem.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It was bound to happen eventually, and it finally did a few days ago:

An admirer on Twitter called me ‘‘Karen.’’

OK, minus the ‘‘admirer’’ part.

If you know anything about the pejorative term ‘‘Karen,’’ you know it’s used — more and more all the time, mainly on social media — to describe someone who is, among other things, white, middle-aged and annoying as all get-out.

And if you know anything about me, you know I’m guiltier than a dog with barbecue sauce on its nose on all three of those counts.

So there you go: an example of some very light online shaming. So light, I’m pretty sure I’m not even allowed to be slightly miffed or offended by it. And if I were? Total Karen move, people.

But enough about me. There is far more serious online shaming going on, and it seems — though it’s somewhat odd to put it this way — to be a very good, healthy, productive thing.

Consider the experience Saints quarterback Drew Brees just had. One day, in reference to blackballed former quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others who’ve taken a knee during the national anthem, Brees told Yahoo Finance: ‘‘I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.’’

But what about police brutality and George Floyd? What about systemic racism and Black Lives Matter? What about people taking to the streets throughout the country and across the globe?

Brees was crushed on social media by teammates, fellow pro athletes, writers, talking heads and even some Saints fans. On the other hand, he was praised by the flag-hugging leader of the free world. But Brees reacted by doing what we Karens are being asked by African Americans — and, more broadly, by so many young people — to do: He listened. And he learned a thing or two.

One could be cynical about the public statements that came next from Brees. It’s easy to be cynical about the types of mea culpas we’re accustomed to seeing from famous people who’ve stepped in it. But this struck me, anyway, as sincere and meaningful. Momentous, even.

First, Brees publicly apologized, acknowledging his words had ‘‘completely missed the mark’’ and ‘‘lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy.’’ Later, in an Instagram post, he addressed the Tweeter-in-Chief directly:

‘‘I [now] realize this is not an issue about the American flag,’’ he wrote. ‘‘It never has been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.’’

Score one for bullying. Wait, did I really just write that?

Brees was shamed into wising up and doing — being — better. Broncos coach Vic Fangio, the former defensive coordinator of the Bears, was, too. In a Zoom interview with reporters last Tuesday, Fangio called the NFL a ‘‘league of meritocracy.’’

‘‘You get what you earn,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t see racism at all in the NFL. I don’t see discrimination in the NFL.’’

Cue the army of upstanding bullies that included many players with ties to Fangio. Where did he get off espousing such nonsensical rhetoric about a league whose owners, general managers and head coaches are, by an overwhelming majority, white? About a league that, again, blackballed Kaepernick for protesting — peacefully and solemnly — about the very thing that would lead to Floyd’s killing?

A day later, Fangio said he was wrong and apologized. And Saturday — wearing a shirt with Floyd’s portrait in front and a mask with ‘‘I Can’t Breathe’’ on it — he marched in the streets of Denver with his players. Like Brees, he listened and was redeemable.

There are different types and degrees of online shaming, which in many cases are horrible. For example: So-called ‘‘cancel culture’’ is one thing, but ‘‘doxxing’’ the wrong person — or persons — is quite another.

Many of you are familiar with the case of Anthony Brennan III, the cyclist who was arrested Friday and charged with assaulting three teenagers who were putting up ‘‘Black Lives Matter’’ signs along a D.C.-area bike trail. Before the identity of Brennan, 60, became known, at least two innocent men were misidentified on social media as the offenders. I watched on Twitter as their names, phone numbers and home addresses were published and their employers were contacted.

It wasn’t really a sports story at all, but it reminded me of the constant race to be first with sports news that has led to countless misinformed reports tweeted onto the trash heap. The errant doxxers are no worse. We all ought to be better than that.

You know who might have benefitted from a little online shaming? Michael Jordan. No, the ‘‘crying Jordan’’ memes don’t count. But if Jordan were playing today, it would be a heck of a lot harder for him to get away with being both the most famous athlete on the planet and an avowed non-activist for African American causes and against racial inequality and injustice.

But now Jordan has, at 57, decided to donate $100 million over the next 10 years to organizations dedicated to fighting for such vital causes. Tennis icon Martina Navratilova tweeted it was ‘‘better late than never.’’ Again, it’s easy to be cynical, even when a figure as massive as $100 million is on the table.

‘‘Black lives matter,’’ Jordan said in a statement. ‘‘This isn’t a controversial statement.’’

No, indeed. It’s easy for me to say, but good on him for listening, learning a thing or two, growing and leading after all.

There’s no shame in trying.