The last year was unlike any other in NFL history, and not just because the Coronavirus pandemic forced teams to adapt their day-to-day operations. It also saw players, organizations and the league as a whole become more aware of their social responsibility and use the platform they have available to inspire and advocate for change.
While that is in itself nothing new — from the repeated support of charitable causes by players and teams, to Colin Kaepernick’s highly publicized pre-game protests in 2017 — it reached another level following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May. Floyd’s murder was neither the first nor, unfortunately, the last incident of its kind, but it created a dynamic that also reached pro football.
All over the league, players began to openly push back against institutional racism, police brutality and social injustice.
The New England Patriots were also part of this process. Team leaders such as twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty, Matthew Slater and others started to discuss issues out in the open, expanding the scope of the team’s popular “Do Your Job!” slogan to also include the fight for change.
“As much as we missed football with the offseason being taken away and not being able to be around the guys, when we got back together we just couldn’t avoid what was going on in the world outside of us. Even in our virtual meetings, we had multiple conversations because of the things that were going on,” said Devin McCourty.
“When those things happen, people kind of have a sense that, ‘You’ll get over it, life will move forward.’ But right as we started practicing in camp, something else happens. I still remember that meeting we had, it was kind of impromptu. Certain teams were canceling practice, and we got off the practice field and we just opened up and talked as a team. From there, the leadership of the team decided as great as those conversations were amongst ourselves we wanted to do more.”
Participating in a recent video discussion with fellow team captain Matthew Slater and the Patriots’ executive director of community affairs, Andre Tippett, McCourty highlighted how players’ intentions culminated in the creation of the so-called Monday Meetings. A series of hour-long meetings conducted weekly before and during the season, the Monday Meetings allowed players and coaches alike to have a forum to discuss social issues.
“This year was a year of growth and education for our team in a lot of ways because, as a result of these meetings and these conversations, we gained a better understanding of who we are as people,” added Slater. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, that will be something that really benefits this organization moving forward as we connected at deeper levels.”
While team leaders such as McCourty, Slater or Brandon King took center stage in establishing those meetings, they also had the support of Bill Belichick. Himself a participant, New England’s head coach gave his team and staff a space to express and educate itself.
“I certainly appreciate Coach Belichick taking the time to get behind this and giving players a platform to educate themselves, to express themselves, and to just get to know one another, be vulnerable with one another,” Slater said.
“Certainly, we all know how Coach Belichick is with his approach to football — and that’s what’s enabled him to have so much success — but for him to get outside his comfort zone a little bit and allow us the platform for those types of things was transformative for our team. I think it will be something we will reap the harvest from for years to come. I tip the hat to his leadership and I hope that we can build upon what we did this past season.”
Although famous for his football-first approach to leading the Patriots, Belichick became a surprisingly active voice during the 2020 season. Not only did he stand by his players’ weekly discussions, he also voiced his support for the Armenian people in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and later went on to decline the Presidential Medal of Freedom offered to him by outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the meantime, the topic of social justice was not just confined to the Monday Meetings. The Patriots’ motivation to “do more,” as McCourty said, also led to some real-life impact emerging from those discussions.
In January, players, coaches and personnel announced that they would be donating $500,000 to eight local organizations through the Patriots Players Social Justice Fund that was first founded in 2018. 32 players, 10 coaches, two scouts and three staff members contributed to the fund, with the family of team owner Robert Kraft later matching the number.
“Obviously more was the social justice fund and raising more money, and giving more money away, but it was also educating ourselves,” he pointed out.
“It was giving guys the opportunity to sit in front of a screen as a team and learn from people. It was amazing; learning about youth and young adults involved in gangs and trying to find their way out. It involved meeting with an organization that was founded by police officers who mentored kids right in Boston. It was learning about food security and about the homeless. It was Berj Najarian, our very own, educating us about Armenians and their struggles.”
While the 2020 season was a disappointing one from an on-field perspective — New England went just 7-9 and finished out of the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season — and posed challenges due to Covid-19, it also was, as mentioned by Slater, a transformative experience for the Patriots. They went from being the NFL’s ultimate no-distraction organization to a team fully invested in advocating for social causes.
McCourty added that the Patriots became “a well-rounded group” in the process.
“It allowed us to talk about so many different things. It allowed us to put things that are important to us in the forefront for an hour outside of football. I really think that fulfilled us in many different ways that winning games just don’t. Many of us walked away feeling like, ‘Hey, I had a huge part in making somebody else’s life better.’”