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ben volin | on football

‘We’ve all kind of become so numb.’ Some Patriots, long battling for racial justice, appear to have lost hope

Matthew Slater (left) and Jason McCourty arrive for practice Thursday.
Matthew Slater (left) and Jason McCourty arrive for practice Thursday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

There are no NFL games to boycott yet, but players and coaches across the league have responded poignantly to the recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. The Lions canceled practice Tuesday and held a demonstration outside of their team facility. Eight other teams, including the Packers, canceled practice Thursday. Many other teams changed the start time of practice to allow players to have long discussions about race and society.

The Patriots, meanwhile, went about their business. Because the Patriots, at least for the time being, have lost hope.

“I don’t have a statement, I don’t have anything powerful, and it’s been very disheartening just watching things transpiring,” team captain Devin McCourty said Thursday. “I’ve felt very hopeless the last couple of days.”

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McCourty has been a man of action ever since NFL players began seriously taking up social justice causes in 2017, the year Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the NFL.

McCourty, one of 12 governing members of the Players Coalition, has been to the Massachusetts State House to talk about raising the minimum age for criminal responsibility from age 7 to 12. He fought for a bill that would distribute more school funding to lower-income communities. He has held forums with district attorney candidates and criminal justice experts. He has been in discussions with NFL owners to talk about what the league can do to promote change.

Yet the events of the last few days in Kenosha, Wis. — Blake, a Black man, getting shot seven times by a police officer, and a 17-year-old allegedly killing two protesters with a semi-automatic rifle — have sent McCourty and several of his teammates into an emotional tailspin.

Star cornerback Stephon Gilmore tweeted right before practice, “I do not have the words to meet the depths of my frustration & sadness.” Jason McCourty said he went through the motions in Thursday’s practice, his thoughts a fog of sadness, anger, and frustration.

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“I know a lot of other guys I’ve talked to in the locker room right now, we’re just lost, man,” Jason McCourty said. “I have no idea why we went out there and practiced today. I feel like we all just go through the motions.

“We’ve all kind of become so numb to this because it’s happened so many times and in so many different places that we’re all just confused. There’s a sense of hopelessness of just not knowing or understanding how to fix a problem.”

There was some talk among players about asking to cancel Thursday’s practice, the way the NBA postponed games Wednesday night.

But the situation in Wisconsin has hit a nerve for Devin McCourty. For three years, he and his teammates have been having long, tough discussions about race and privilege. They have done countless community events, and raised awareness about police brutality and social inequality.

Devin McCourty is heading into his 11th season with the Patriots.
Devin McCourty is heading into his 11th season with the Patriots.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Yet here they are again, discussing the same issues they did months ago after the senseless deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

It has turned Devin McCourty into a fatalist. He’s having a hard time coming up with a plan of action, because none of his previous plans seem to be working much.

“If we don’t practice one day and go back practicing the next day, I don’t know what that really accomplishes,” he said. ”I’ve done a lot of this work over the last couple of years. I know we could take a whole day off and we could talk about a whole bunch of different things. It just hasn’t mattered.

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“If there was no football, I don’t think people are still going to care about Black and brown people in our country.”

The McCourtys’ best friend and de facto younger brother, Duron Harmon, helped organize the Lions’ protests Tuesday. But the Jacob Blake situation has sent the McCourtys into an existential crisis. They just don’t have the energy right now for another round of protests and long talks and kneeling for the national anthem.

Former Patriot and current Detroit safety Duron Harmon addresses the media with his teammates before practice earlier this week.
Former Patriot and current Detroit safety Duron Harmon addresses the media with his teammates before practice earlier this week.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

“I talked to Duron,” Jason McCourty said. “I thought what they did was awesome. Does it fix anything?

“When we cancel practice and we sit down and we meet and we talk, does it change anything? When we stay inside for the national anthem and then we go out there and we play in the game for four quarters and we entertain everybody, does it change anything?

“If we cancel practice today, we sit around, we discuss race, we discuss what happened to Jacob Blake, or we talk about what’s continuing to happen in our country for hundreds of years, but then we go out and practice tomorrow, nobody cares.”

Devin McCourty has been the leading voice in the Patriots locker room for the last three-plus years. But now he is just as lost as everyone else.

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“I haven’t been able to come to grips with anything, let alone try to be a voice to guys,” he said. “I saw something Draymond Green posted about why should athletes stop playing and be the only people to stop playing when why doesn’t some of the top businesses, whether it’s Apple or something like that, why doesn’t their CEO stop going to work? Why do we only look for athletes to cancel games to stop going to work?

“I read that and I was like, man, like, that’s another interesting point. That makes sense.”

It was heartbreaking to hear two of the Patriots’ most enthusiastic leaders, who have done so much for their communities over the last several years, say they have essentially given up.

“Right away, I think of a football term that every coach has always said to me: ‘If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse,’ ” Devin McCourty said. “There’s probably some aspect of that because the more we see all of these different tragic events happen, you become numb to it.

Devin McCourty has never been afraid to speak his mind, on or off the field.
Devin McCourty has never been afraid to speak his mind, on or off the field.John Tlumacki

“Each time an incident happens, you are like, ‘Well, why didn’t we learn from the other incident?’ So, in your brain, as those things keep happening, it gets worse and then you become numb to it. And then it just becomes the norm.

“That is one of my biggest fears, that someday this continues to just happen and people get tired from yelling from balconies or going and making statements or trying to help and they just become numb to it and it just becomes normalized.”

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Hopefully the McCourtys don’t give up. The lower-income communities they have helped in Massachusetts and their home state of New York badly need their support. Education and criminal justice reform are still causes worth fighting for, and can still be improved.

But for now, the McCourtys are simply out of answers and out of energy.

“I think we’re just struggling with this, man,” Jason McCourty said. “We don’t know how to move forward, so we just stick to our routine and we move and we go through the motions.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin