It was just after the news had broken: a black man had been shot by a police officer under questionable circumstances, the kind of event that has made headlines often enough in the past few years that Devin McCourty can’t remember exactly which one it was.
What he does remember is his brother Jason’s reaction.
“Man, I’m tired of just seeing everybody post on social media,” Jason said.
That was two years ago. Now, Devin cites that conversation as one of the experiences that has led the Patriots safety to the forefront of a growing movement of NFL players flexing their muscles as activists.
On Friday came a clear sign of progress. The day after a group including McCourty and former Patriot Troy Brown spent hours at the State House lobbying for a set of changes to the Massachusetts criminal justice system, House and Senate lawmakers filed a comprehensive reform bill that included several of the provisions they’d pushed for. The biggest: raising the age at which a child can be prosecuted criminally from 7 to 12.
“I think it’s kind of reassuring what we’re doing,” McCourty said Friday, in between sessions of a social justice summit at Harvard Law School. “Seeing the low age go to 12, which was really what we were harping on. Not go to 10 but actually to go to 12.”
To understand how McCourty got to this point — to spending days of his offseason meeting with politicians and speaking on panels when he could just as easily be poolside in Cancun — requires going back to that conversation he had with his brother. It prompted him to relay a similar thought via text to Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles safety McCourty has known since they played in a New Jersey high school all-star game together. When Jenkins and Anquan Boldin co-founded the Players Coalition, Jenkins knew McCourty would want to be a part of it.
The Players Coalition started small, about 30 players with a handful of leaders, including Jenkins, Boldin, McCourty, and Demario Davis, all of whom were at Harvard Friday. They mostly communicated via text and brainstormed ways to get involved in their communities. Though they’d begun organizing months before, their work gained notice last fall when the player protests begun by Colin Kaepernick were the biggest story in football and when the players protesting were criticized by President Trump.
“That controversy helped,” McCourty said. “Being in the locker room, since I’m one of the leaders, guys would come up to me. ‘What are we going to do? What’s going to happen?’ I try to remember that, and when we start to get things going I’m telling guys, ‘Hey, remember when you were talking about “I want to take a knee?” Here’s a way you can really help and get involved.’ ”
As chair of the education and economic advancement committee, McCourty is a voting member of the coalition, which gives him a say in funding decisions. That includes influence over how a significant portion of the seven-year, $89 million commitment the NFL made last November to support social-justice causes championed by the players is spent.
Most of McCourty’s knowledge of the criminal justice system came from his own experiences. There was no singular event that drove him to action, but, like many black kids in America, he felt uneasy around law enforcement, especially police officers.
“For me as a kid, we always tried to stay away from them,” McCourty said. “I remember something happened, like, I lived in an apartment, a section of an apartment and something happened up the street and a cop came over there.
“And before I could answer, an older kid tapped me and I just stopped talking and the cop walked away and the older kid was like, ‘When the cops come around, you don’t say anything. You don’t know anything. You don’t know anyone.’
“And I think that’s a narrative that’s a cultural thing that it shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t feel like that with the people that are there to protect us.”
Before engaging as a political activist, though, McCourty made sure he learned more than just his own experiences had taught him. He wasn’t too nervous about getting involved in something political or controversial, but he was nervous about making sure that he knew enough to act effectively.
“Not from like a team and keeping my job aspect, but I think just from a ‘Do I know this? Am I knowledgeable?’ ” he said.
As it turned out, McCourty’s job was secure. He and teammates Matthew Slater, Johnson Bademosi (now a Houston Texan), and Duron Harmon attended a Listen and Learn day at the Harvard Law School in January, where they met with community advocates, judges and public defenders among others, to learn about criminal justice reform initiatives.
When they went, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft went with them.
It was Kraft who pointed out the piece of data that wound up driving the group that visited the State House Thursday. One of the pieces of literature they were provided with highlighted that, in Massachusetts, a child can be tried in court as a juvenile at 7 years old. Kraft couldn’t believe it.
“He was like, ‘Wait. Did that say 7 years old?’ And we asked like, ‘What exactly does that mean?’ ” McCourty said.
Judge Gloria Tan, who was one of the panelists at Harvard Friday, said that she’d thankfully never had a 7-year-old come through her courtroom but, if one did, she’d be forced by law to try them the same way she’d try an 18-year-old.
The bill will have to pass through the House and the Senate, and be signed by Governor Baker, but it can no longer be amended. The bill had languished in committee for months and Players Coalition organizers were told that the presence of the athletes helped get it out.
That, in essence, is the power the Players Coalition is trying to harness. As athletes, they can get meetings. Cameras follow them.
Not everyone is comfortable with athletes openly wielding that social capital. Though McCourty didn’t worry about his job security when he got involved with the coalition, he does believe that safety Eric Reid remains unsigned in part because of his association with Kaepernick as one of the earliest players to join the former 49er in kneeling during the national anthem. On Sunday, Texans owner Bob McNair reiterated to reporters at the league meetings his belief that “our playing fields, that’s not the place for political statements.”
McCourty wants more players to join the coalition. He and other well-known veterans such as Jenkins can shoulder a bit more heat than, say, an undrafted rookie, and there’s strength in numbers.
“Us doing this is cool, but if there’s four or five of us doing it, in two years we all could be out of the league,” McCourty said. “That’s easy for the league to do. But if we form this coalition and we start trying to target and get to a player, five players, six players, hopefully the whole locker room on every team, then it’s normal.
“We’re all fighting for something that’s good, and I think that’s the truth, though. We’re not in here talking about doing something that’s crazy, we’re talking about things that are wrong and trying to fix it.”