FOXBOROUGH — Devin McCourty left NFL headquarters in New York City earlier this week knowing one thing: He and his fellow players can’t get sucked in to the divisive political debate and forget the bigger picture.
“We’ve got to make sure this whole thing doesn’t turn into, ‘The NFL vs. Donald Trump,’ ” McCourty said Thursday from Gillette Stadium. “As players, obviously, he is whatever he is. You can probably have an hour of trying to describe that and everything he is. But I think as players we have an agenda of what we think can be done better, and we’re trying to use our platform and I think we have to stick to that.”
McCourty was one of eight NFL players, along with teammate Matthew Slater, invited to the league offices on Tuesday evening to participate in a discussion with Roger Goodell about the president’s comments from last weekend and the various player demonstrations before Sunday’s games. The two-hour discussion also involved 10 NFL owners, including Robert Kraft, and was an opportunity for players, owners, and Goodell to discuss the events of the past weekend and the next steps.
McCourty said the players’ message has to be about serving communities and helping people instead of getting wrapped up in politics.
“I think that’s the key, that we’re trying to speak up for and speak out,” McCourty said. “It’s not really this war of, ‘Do the NFL owners have our back?’ I do think they’re willing to help us get some of these things going, and hopefully that is what happens out of all of this.”
McCourty joined 17 teammates in kneeling for the national anthem before Sunday’s win over the Texans. Several Patriots players have said they expect that the kneeling was a one-time demonstration that was a direct response to the president’s comments last weekend, in which he called NFL players who don’t stand for the anthem as “sons of bitches” and encouraged the owners to fire them.
But the Patriots may still use the national anthem to send a message at this Sunday’s home game against Carolina. McCourty said the players have already met and talked about what to do this Sunday, and he expects the team to stand as one during the anthem, though he wouldn’t reveal any details.
“We wanted to be united as players, and I think that is the key thing,” McCourty said.
“I know the owners, for sure, don’t want us kneeling,” Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas told NJ.com. “Not because of what the message is. It’s the message that’s getting across. People are totally misconstruing the kneeling thing, from the beginning.”
Following a historical day of demonstrations on Sunday, and most NFL owners issuing statements condemning Trump’s comments and supporting the players, a handful of players were invited to New York on Tuesday while several owners were in town for committee meetings.
“This was one of the many conversations that have happened this week within the NFL,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “The commissioner believed with all the owners here for committee meetings it was important to bring in some players and hear directly from them. While the conversations will remain private, they were very informative and instructive.”
McCourty said he appreciated the opportunity to have a back and forth with the owners and commissioner on Tuesday, but also to consult with fellow players about how they are giving back to their communities.
Other players in the meeting included the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long,Casillas, and the Browns’ Christian Kirksey and Jason McCourty.
“I think it was a very unique opportunity – obviously for the players but I think both sides. That rarely ever happens,” Devin McCourty said of players and owners. “It was just a great situation and opportunity that we all could sit there and just talk, throw everything out there. It was a big dialogue. What a lot of guys have been trying to start is dialogue. I think it was obviously a step in the right direction.”
After Sunday’s game, a closer-than-expected, 36-33 win, McCourty pleaded with fans not to perceive the players’ demonstration as anti-military or anti-police. The Gillette Stadium crowd booed loudly when the 18 players took a knee.
“We hate that people are going to see it as that we don’t respect the military,” McCourty said Sunday, “and the men and women that are way braver than us that go and put their life on the line every day for us to have the right to play football.”
In the four days since, McCourty said he heard plenty of anger but also plenty of support.
“It has ranged from far left to far right, and everything in between,” he said.
McCourty also defended himself from the notion that the demonstrations and his trip to New York on Tuesday are distractions to the football team. He notes that he does plenty of off-field work in other seasons, including raising money and awareness for sickle cell trait via his foundation.
“I’ve never been in a season where I only do football,” McCourty said.
“I do a ton of work with sickle cell and try to do things in the community. It’s all been a balance. That is always key for us as football players. I could play my last game on Sunday, but life doesn’t stop. So I’ve always tried to keep that balance, and to me this is another part of that balance.”