The four football players stepped into Courtroom 17 of the Boston Municipal Court quietly, but it only took a few moments for the room to start buzzing.
“Who are you here for,” asked a young man, equal parts confused and excited to see New England Patriots Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Matthew Slater slide quietly onto a bench in the back of the room.
“We’re just observing,” said Devin McCourty. The man looked a little disappointed to learn he wasn’t witnessing part of some sports scandal.
The McCourtys, Harmon, and Slater went to the courthouse last week to watch a series of pretrial hearings where they could see how decisions on bail or whether or not to prosecute someone get made. They were there with the Players Coalition, the social justice group made up of current and former NFL players of which Devin McCourty is one of 12 voting members. They wanted to get an up-close look at an impactful part of the judicial process, hoping to learn something about how to eliminate systematic bias against minorities within it.
More and more, these players are devoting many of their off days to this kind of work. And though they’ve all known each other for years, doing the work together, having conversations about topics that didn’t used to come up so much in the locker room and knowing that they all support the same mission off the field has added a dimension to their relationships with one another.
“We talk about it a lot more,” said Devin McCourty. “I think it makes you look at things differently, if people care or they don’t care. I’m not going to lie, sometimes that bothers me when we talk about different things and if I feel like someone doesn’t care, I’m like, ‘They don’t understand.’ And I do get a little pissed off. But I think the good thing is you build relationships, the cool thing is we’re all able to talk about this and not just us four, but within the locker room, I get to hear all different perspectives.”
They’d spent an hour that morning with representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, and from a group called CourtWatch MA, learning about what to expect and what to look for during the hearings. They were looking in particular to see if a set of 15 low-level charges that Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins has said should not be prosecuted were indeed being dismissed or diverted.
They were at the courthouse for another hour or so and saw five hearings, most of them lasting only a few minutes. The list of charges the DA’s office wants the Commonwealth to decline prosecuting came up multiple times, once in a drug possession case, another regarding a resisting arrest charge.
“[It was interesting] just to see how much power, essentially, that the judge has,” Slater said. “He really kind of dictates what goes on and how cases are treated. Then, also, to see the recommendations that the DA’s office made on behalf of the Commonwealth. It was interesting to see that dynamic and see how they were able to work together as they approached these cases.”
Rollins met with Players Coalition members the same afternoon took office this January, so the judges and prosecutors pre-date her policies. Groups like CourtWatch MA send volunteers to observe hearings to see if they are actually being enforced.
Criminal justice reform is a central issue for the Players Coalition, with bail reform being one of the top-line issues the group is pushing for. The reason this matters was something the four players talked about earlier that morning at the ACLU, sometimes in personal terms.
Harmon told a story about his cousin, Kenneth Yarborough, who accepted a 10-year prison sentence in 2012 for crimes connected to a string of burglaries in Delaware. Yarborough took a plea deal because he was told he could face a much longer sentence if he went to trial, and because he and his family couldn’t afford a private lawyer. Harmon said it made him feel helpless.
“I didn’t really understand what was going on with his situation, especially when I was younger,” Harmon said. “But [Devin] just bringing me along and bringing me in and trying to change something bigger than myself has shown me that the system is flawed. I have family members that the system has failed and I’m trying to make sure that I can not only keep more family members, but just more people, out of that system.”
It wasn’t something Harmon used to talk to his teammates about, but he’s started to as he’s learned more about the criminal justice system by working with the Players Coalition. There aren’t conversations every day in locker rooms, though they’re happening more and more often.
The McCourtys and Harmon and Slater would love to have more of these frank conversations with every teammate and to see more of their teammates, particularly white teammates, get involved alongside them.
“We talk about it in the locker room with black and brown teammates, white teammates, everybody,” Jason McCourty said. “Of course, I think you would like to see even if our representation in the Players Coalition was the exact representation of a locker room where it may be a majority of black players but you also had white players and everybody kind of standing together, you would love for it to look like that. I think It’s still early on.”