Few players in the New England Patriots’ locker room, and the NFL as a whole, have as powerful a voice as Matthew Slater. A nine-time team captain and winner of the prestigious Bart Starr Award — let alone three Super Bowls and numerous individual accolades — Slater has earned a reputation for being among the most well-spoken and thoughtful players in pro football. When he opens his mouth, people listen not just when he breaks down the Patriots’ traditional post-game huddle.
So when Slater recently appeared on NBC Sports’ Next Pats Podcast to share his thoughts on the ongoing social unrest all over the United States, among other topics, it turned into a conversation worth taking the time to listen to. The 34-year-old did not just talk about his unique experience and how he and his family are coping with recent events, but also touched on locker room culture and how the Patriots in particular have tackled this difficult a topic during their conversations over the last two weeks.
“I understand that people will say, ‘Hey, you guys are there to play football, let’s just do that,’” Slater said. “When something of this magnitude happens in our country, it’s important that we process it because it’s going to have an effect on different guys in our locker room in different ways. We’ve started the process of trying to navigate this and digest it and internalize it and process it. I’m sure it will be an ongoing process, and I hope that it will totally change the way that our locker room operates for the better.”
Slater is not the first of the Patriots’ players to touch on the locker room creating a unique dynamic and fertile ground for conversations into current events and issues of race inequality: cornerback Jason McCourty, another veteran leader on the team and active voice on and off the field, also recently spoke about locker rooms giving players and coaches an opportunity to uncomfortably have debates about social issues.
“If our country operated and moved like a locker room, it would be a beautiful thing,” Slater said about locker rooms serving as melting pots of sorts. “I’m not saying it’s perfect, I’m not saying we got it all figured out. But what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature can come together to work for the common goal. And there is automatic respect with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet — you’re one of us.
“I’m appreciative of that, and I think now is a time for us to maybe force those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and experiences from their teammates have a different appreciation for why a guy is the way that he is, why he does the things that he does. Ultimately, that’s going to lead to even more fruitful relationships,” continued the veteran, who is entering his 13th season as a member of New England’s locker room.
Slater’s role in this bonding process is an obvious one, and so is that of Bill Belichick. The Patriots’ head coach has navigated his team through challenging situations in the past, and during player protests in September 2017 lauded his players for their conduct both as part of his team and in the community — all while echoing the same thoughts that Slater and McCourty recently shared on the locker room being an environment of diversity.
“I’d say Coach has a good, healthy understanding of the gravity of the situation and the times that we’re living in,” Slater said about the future Hall of Famer. “I think he’s done a good job of trying to listen, trying to learn, and hear from his players, and try to navigate this as best he can. I understand that his job is to coach the football team and to get the football team ready to be successful, and nothing’s going to take his focus away from that.
“But I do think that it’s important, as he has done, to hear from his players and understand that football is temporary — what we’re left with is who we are as people, the values, the beliefs and our experiences, and the results of our experiences,” Slater added. “I’m sure that he’ll continue to be open and receptive to us having dialogue. I’m thankful for what he has done thus far as far as this process is concerned. We’ll just see how it goes as we press forward.
As for Slater himself, he pointed out that the current times would be unique for him and his family, and unlike anything he could remember in recent history: not only is the current Coronavirus pandemic still claiming the lives of approximately 1,000 Americans each day, the social unrest that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in late May also continues to impact the United States.
“It’s obviously a tragic situation — my heart breaks for needless, senseless violence and the needless, senseless loss of life,” he said. “It’s just something that pains you to see. And certainly my family and I have to process that from our perspectives, and that’s something that we’re trying to do daily. I’m thankful for some very fruitful conversations that have come as a result of this. I’ve had some tough, uncomfortable conversations with friends and family that I think probably should have happened a long time ago.”
Slater continued to speak about personal identity and actively trying to get to know one another as key factors in those conversations.
“I think as Americans we take a lot of pride in rooting ourselves in our personal identities — the belief systems that we have, the way we think, the political views we have, the religious views we have,” he said. “We take a lost of pride in that, and a lot of times those are pillars that we are willing to die upon. What I’ve seen as a result of this is maybe people putting those things aside and maybe just hear some of the other side — to hear the other experiences that people in America are having, the things that they had happen to them over the course of their lifetimes that have contributed to them being who they are.
“I’ve seen that more over the last 10 days or so than I’ve seen any other time that I can remember. I think that’s really, really productive. Ultimately, if society wants to end up in a better place as a result of this particular event, I think that’s something that’s going to need to happen: you’re going to have to remove certain hats and hear from others. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, it doesn’t mean you have to change the way you think, but I think you have to keep an open mind and do the best you can in learning about what other people go through.”