More than half of the New England Patriots roster participated in the league-wide protest on Sunday, with players from Devin McCourty and Brandin Cooks to Tom Brady and Malcolm Butler coming together in a sign of unity and solidarity against racism, a decision spurred by divisive comments made by the President on Friday.
“We were obviously very conflicted,” McCourty said after the game. “We knew our message would be perceived by a lot of people in a way that wasn’t what we were trying to put out. A lot of guys felt, I mean, all over the place about the comments by the President Friday night.
“As a leader on the team, a lot of guys came to me and they didn’t know what to do. They just were kind of angry. It was good Saturday. We all kind of talked as a group of releasing that anger and not being angry. We were in chapel and a lot of guys talked about that in our faith, God is first. We wanted to come together.”
After the game, Patriots players discussed “brotherhood,” “fraternity,” “unity,” and “love” and how they were collectively coming together, “trying to do the right thing,” as McCourty put it, while his shirt spoke additional volumes.
“No place for racism, sexism, fascism, hate,” the shirt read, an essential understanding of what these men are fighting for, even as the protest is continually reframed by detractors to be about the military or the first amendment.
“A lot of people think we’re disrespecting the flag and the military,” Cooks said after the game, “but my father and uncle were Marines, and I have the utmost respect for the men and women that fight for our freedom.”
McCourty’s father and older brother were both in the army, too, as are numerous family members of players on the team and across the NFL. These Patriots players are using their platform to hold up a mirror to the country and to try and make America its best. They are kneeling to draw attention to the injustices directed towards people of color and those not heard in our communities.
“We're really standing up for the people with no voice,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said on WBZ, “Everybody watches football on Sunday. Once a week. It’s one of the biggest ratings on TV. And if we can just do a little something to let people know that we understand what they’re going through, I think it will go a long way. All we need is just understanding.”
“We know they don’t understand why we’re doing it,” Harmon added about those that boo’d their protest. “I mean, it’s no other way around it. It’s two sides of the spectrum right now and we’re doing it for one reason and they want us to stand for another reason. And all we’re asking is to be understood why we’re really standing. We’re standing for people with no voice.”
And in Harmon’s mind, if those people truly understood what the players are protesting, then even if they continued to stand, they definitely wouldn’t be booing. So let’s discuss what the protests are about.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started his protest as a stand against police brutality and the oppression of “black people and people of color,” sparking a national dialogue.
Black Americans are “incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate” of white Americans and are almost six-times more likely to be arrested for drug use than white Americans, despite not being more likely to use drugs. Unarmed black males are twice as likely to be killed by the police than unarmed white males and black defendants also receive 20% longer sentences than white Americans for the same crime. These biases lead to a disproportionate disenfranchisement of black and Hispanic American voters.
These are the people for whom Harmon and McCourty and all of the other protesters in the NFL are providing a voice, and the reason why players like Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins and wide receiver Torrey Smith, Seahawks pass rusher Michael Bennett, and wide receiver Anquan Boldin have stepped forward.
These four leaders penned a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell titled, “Player Activism for Racial Equality and Criminal Justice Reform“ that laid out the mission and goal of these protests.
These men are fighting for Criminal Justice Reform and Improved Police/Community Relations & Community Engagement. These changes include greater transparency from the police and increased accountability, bail reform, and mass incarceration, with an “emphasis on diversion of funds towards community based programs, education and training,” and working directly with police to redevelop trust in the community.
Jenkins has met with local police in Philadelphia as well as congressmen “to address not only criminal justice reform and our prison system, but also reconciling the relationship between law enforcement and communities.” He also spoke with Congress alongside other NFL players, including Patriots defensive back Johnson Bademosi and former Patriots receiver Donte Stallworth.
Smith has met with community activists, police chiefs, and educators to discuss “issues facing young black males in the city,” and has provided food and scholarships and supplies to communities in need.
Back in March, Bennett “pledged to donate all of his endorsement money in 2017 to causes that help rebuild minority communities and empower women of color.” He was also detained in August in Las Vegas as a suspect in a shooting (there was no gunfire that actually took place) and while the detaining officer’s bodycam was not activated, Bennett’s claims that an officer held an apparent gun to his head were validated by a video from a different officer.
Boldin was the 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year for his charitable endeavors, working with Oxfam to influence White House decisions and running a foundation “with the mission to expand the educational and life opportunities of underprivileged children.”
When the President made his statement, players took that as a question of their support for the cause; where before they could talk behind the scenes, now their agency was called to question and they felt the need to fight back.
“[The President’s remarks] kind of drew a line in the sand to where I just wanted to be clear which side I’m on,” former Patriots cornerback Darius Butler told the Indy Star. “There are a lot of great things about this country, and this is a great country, but there are a lot of things that need to change, and need to be addressed.”
The change started with Kaepernick and is carried through by all players who participated in Sunday’s protest. This is about more than football; it’s about equality and equity and the sanctity of human life. NFL players should continue to spread their message and to ensure their messaging is clear.
All they ask is for you to understand why they’re doing this.