FOXBOROUGH — Devin McCourty knew the question was coming. The NFL’s national anthem policy continues to be a big story, and McCourty has become a prominent face of the Players Coalition, the group of current and former players working on educational and social justice initiatives.
He just didn’t want to deal with it.
“I think with the anthem policy, obviously that’s what you guys have to cover,” McCourty said Wednesday as the Patriots reported for training camp. “Hopefully you put a little side note and throw in things that guys have been doing, because I think that’s more important than whatever anthem policy.”
McCourty was speaking just six days after the NFL announced that it was walking back its new national anthem policy, and would work with the NFL Players Association to come up with a new solution.
In May, the owners hastily agreed to a new anthem policy in which teams would be fined by the league office for any player who protests during the national anthem, and the teams could subsequently punish players with as much as a four-game suspension.
McCourty sure had an opinion about the new rule in May, shortly after it was announced.
“This is dumb,” McCourty said after one practice.
But McCourty and fellow Players Coalition teammate Matthew Slater have been noticeably quiet since the NFL announced that it would continue to work on the new policy. McCourty didn’t post any reaction on Twitter, and on Wednesday both players declined to reveal their thoughts about the anthem policy.
“Didn’t really have one,” Slater said.
“The Players Coalition is mainly focused on off the field, doing things like that, not the anthem policy and the anthem overall,” McCourty said.
It was a concerted effort not to fan any flames or engage President Trump, who has called this a “winning issue” for him and won’t be giving up his bombast against the NFL and its players any time soon.
“It should never have developed into the issue it has,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said earlier this week. “Yes, it bothers me that we sit here today talking about the anthem issue.”
True to form, Trump almost immediately took a swipe at the NFL after it put a hold on its new policy last week.
“Commissioner must now make a stand,” the president tweeted on July 20. “First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”
The NFL has also tried to not engage Trump anymore, but Giants co-owner Steve Tisch couldn’t help himself last week, coming to the defense of the players.
“He has no understanding of why they take a knee or why they’re protesting,” Tisch said. “When the new season starts, I hope his priorities are not criticizing the NFL and telling owners what to do and what not to do.”
The NFL and NFLPA leadership are currently working on a new solution to the anthem policy, and said in a joint statement that they will do it “through mutual, good faith commitments, outside of litigation.” The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the NFL wants the players to be required to stand for the anthem, but to agree to it instead of having it imposed on them.
McCourty, Slater, and the Players Coalition were involved in discussions with owners at NFL headquarters last fall, but McCourty said they aren’t involved this time. It’s strictly between the NFL and NFLPA.
“With the anthem policy, we’ll see how it comes out and what happens,” McCourty said. “But the work off the field, to me, is what’s been very encouraging throughout the league, seeing guys in different cities doing things.”
McCourty lit up when he was asked about the off-field work being done around the league. That is way more interesting to him than talking about the national anthem policy for the umpteenth time.
Several players around the league have undertaken social justice and educational initiatives since the controversy with the national anthem erupted two years ago. Chris Long donated his entire 2017 salary for scholarships and educational opportunities for children in multiple cities. McCourty, Slater, and former teammate Johnson Bademosi met with Beacon Hill leaders in March to discuss criminal justice reform — not allowing children as young as age 7 to be tried in a juvenile court, for example, and eradicating mandatory minimum sentences, among other initiatives.
Over the summer, McCourty, twin brother, Jason, and Slater moderated a town hall debate for district attorney candidates in Dorchester.
And the three began another initiative this week, publishing an op-ed calling for better funding for Massachusetts public schools, particularly in low-income areas. Published to the internet on Tuesday, the op-ed cites a statistic that “70 percent of Black and Latino third-graders read below grade level,” and that a less affluent town like Brockton spent $10,000 less per student per year than in the more prosperous town of Weston.
“Obviously Massachusetts has one of the best public school systems in the country,” McCourty said. “But there are schools, like in Brockton, where kids are struggling because they just need more funding.
“There’s a bill that passed through the Senate, so trying to get it passed through the House now. . . . So, that’s one thing that we’re kind of focused on now.”
McCourty doesn’t want the discussion to be about the anthem anymore. He wants it to be about the positive work being done by dozens of NFL players in their communities.
“It just needs more coverage, you know?” he said. “Just keep giving us more coverage. I think the more it’s written about and talked about, I think it comes to the forefront.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.