BERGEN COUNTRY, N.J.- Quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick ignited a movement in the National Football League, in the United States of America, and in the world by choosing to kneel during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner on August 26, 2016. It was only a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, but it was the beginning of social and political upheaval: an ongoing discussion and debate about race relations and, subsequently, about public displays of patriotism in the U.S.A.
With no rule against protesting the national anthem (unlike the NBA), NFL players of all colors, shapes, and sizes began to think: what will I do when that familiar tune plays? Some players stood, some kneeled, some raised their fists, some held hands, and even some more stayed in the locker room. There was, of course, one army veteran that stood in the tunnel while his entire team stayed in the locker room.
Which of these actions is ‘right’? Is there a ‘correct’ way to show one’s discontent with race relations? Are there issues with race relations? Is this an appropriate form of protest? Aren’t NFL teams ‘private businesses’? Can you protest as an employee of a private company? What is the penalty for protesting? What do combat veterans think? The list of questions and the amount of dialogue, confusion, and opinions generated as an off-shoot of Kaepernick’s actions on August 26, 2016 are endless.
During the 2017 season, the NFL’s ratings were down almost 10% from the previous year. Some fans may argue for reasons that do not relate to the national anthem protests. Others are, even now, vowing to boycott the NFL until it solves this confusion in a manner that is amenable to all parties. Thinking of the NFL as a business: where there is less public visibility, there is less cashflow. The league and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, have a major social, moral, and economic issue on their hands.
Many conservative fans argue that the act of kneeling, or protesting the Star Spangled Banner, is simply not enough. They argue that players must get out and be visible in the community in order to make a difference.
Enter the Players’ Coalition: a group of owners and current professional football players (of varying ethnic backgrounds) that has banded together to enact social change and to organize and rally players around the cause. The founders of the organization are: Eagles’ Malcom Jenkins and 49ers’ Anquon Boldin. Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty is a proud member of the Players Coalition, telling me: “I think its been great to be a part of a group of players that want change and they’re able and willing to go do things.”
On Monday, May 21, 2018, the Players Coalition finalized a $90 million partnership with the NFL. According to NFL Network’s Jim Trotter, the money will “benefit programs combating social inequality and the partnership aims to work closely with players, teams and other groups in a new and expanded community improvement program”. Devin McCourty told me: “I think it’s sad that everyone overlooks that importance of, as Americans, [making our nation a better place is] what we should strive for, to make where we live better for our children. I’m happy and privileged to be part of The Coalition.”
With $90 million at its disposal, with the NFL’s backing, with all of its player-members employed by the NFL, the Players Coalition is an organization set to ratify reform. Having started the entire movement, one would think Kaepernick would have jumped at the opportunity to join his like-minded colleagues in enacting change throughout the league, and, indirectly, throughout the nation. I asked McCourty if Kaepernick was invited to be part of the Players Coalition. His response, in full, was:
“Yeah. It just didn’t work out. I think it was just different ways and beliefs on how to get things done. I don’t think it changes and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong person on how to get things done. I just think it’s different ways and I think him and a couple other guys find different ways to go about it and thats what happened.” – DEVIN MCCOURTY
A kneeling, national anthem hand-holder, what is McCourty’s take on the NFL’s rule that players “should” stand for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner?
“I think the thing with the anthem was: I thought guys used it as a vehicle to protest against some things that they felt were important out to people. I think the Anthem became a bigger issue to everyone else because they wanted to make it about things that it wasn’t. Everybody wanted to make it about the military and all our service men and women out there when it wasn’t that at all. We have so many guys in the NFL whether they sit or stand that have a tremendous amount of respect for the military and what they do…”
What is most important to McCourty is that beyond the protest is a real and tangible outcome. “I thought guys, after that, [are] going in their communities [and] going to educate themselves. Myself and my teammates, we got to go to Harvard Law and speak to a bunch of different advocates and learn about a lot of areas that we knew the surface part … but we didn’t know the ins-and-outs…. Even like Jonathan Kraft, our president, came with us to Harvard Law; he was very intrigued, he was very involved. I think now, [we] players are starting to use our resources. We’re able to use our NFL teams and our owners and their relationships with legislatures and different people in cities to help to try to make change and I think if we can get that done, we won’t even care about the anthem years from now.”
What does twin brother (and newly minted New England Patriot) Jason McCourty think of his brother’s efforts? “It’s amazing. Just to have players united and talking about issues that are going on in our country and not be afraid to step up and do something about it…. That’s the biggest thing…. Its just amazing… just hearing how thoughtful guys are, their ideas, and the impact the guys can make. It’s an exciting time.”
Will the Players Coalition discover the elusive answer that has, for almost two years, plagued the NFL? It is certainly running the correct route.
*This interview was recorded at the McCourty brothers’ annual Casino Night fundraiser at Rutgers University. Money was raised for the Embrace Kids Foundation and Sickle Cell disease research.*
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