ATLANTA — Devin McCourty is one of the most recognizable faces on the Patriots—assuming you can tell him apart from his twin brother, Jason. The veteran safety was on stage at Gillette Stadium last Sunday, next to Tom Brady and the other team captains, in front of the 35,000 fans who came out for the team’s send-off rally. At the Super Bowl Opening Night, he was one of the 10 Patriots players appointed his own riser, in anticipation of a big crowd, and he had his own press conference after Bill Belichick on Wednesday.
But it was several months ago, at the Massachusetts State House, when McCourty fully appreciated what that cachet brings. He was there, along with former players Troy Brown and Ulish Booker and the local chapter of the ACLU, lobbying for reform in the state’s juvenile system. McCourty found that it wasn’t hard to get meetings, because everyone wanted a photo opportunity with a Patriots player. That was his way in—but once he was there, he wanted to talk about a bill that would raise the state’s minimum age for criminal responsibility from 7 to 12, and sharing what he’d learned in his conversations with advocates for fair punishment.
“I’ve won two Super Bowls, and obviously this year has been a little bit more special with my brother on the team, but from a football standpoint, at times I am like, dang, what else is there really that I want to accomplish in football?” McCourty says. “And then when I get a chance to use my platform, I’m like, I’m not ready to give that up.”
McCourty made headlines earlier this week when, in reply to a question from Deion Sanders, he didn’t close the door on retiring if New England wins Super Bowl LIII, his fifth time playing in the championship game. Later, he walked that back a bit, saying he hadn’t thought about retirement. That’s a decision to be made after this weekend’s game, but over the last couple years, McCourty has been motivated to keep going not just because of his love of football, but because of how it allows him to draw attention to causes that have long been overlooked in our country.
“This chapter [of my career] has been the true meaning of being in the NFL,” says McCourty, who was a first-round pick by New England in 2010. “There is always going to be a Super Bowl winner, a league MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, great defenses and offenses. But I think to be part of real change—you talk about athletes like Muhammad Ali or Bill Russell—when you are able to do things that truly affect not just the game, but people everywhere, you find true meaning.”
McCourty is one of 12 governing members of the Players Coalition, the social change and advocacy group of current and former NFL players, founded by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and retired NFL receiver Anquan Boldin. Like many of the group’s other members, McCourty was bothered by incidents of police brutality and systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system, and wanted to do more than just post his frustrations on social media. Around that time, Jenkins reached out to McCourty, telling him about the group he and Boldin had started and asking if he wanted to get involved. McCourty joined the organization in the spring of 2017.
On Wednesday of Super Bowl week, the Players Coalition announced $2 million in grants to six non-profit organizations whom they’ll partner with in 2019, continuing their work to address racial and social inequalities in America. One of the six organizations is the National Juvenile Defender Center, which focuses on equal access to legal representation and fair treatment in a court of law for all juveniles—one of the issues to which McCourty has devoted his time over the last two years.
“Who would have imagined,” he says, “that players from all different teams would be able to come together and form something that will go on long past any of us playing?”
McCourty has always done work off the field; since early in their NFL careers, he and his brother, Jason, have partnered with a non-profit supporting kids and families battling sickle-cell anemia, in honor of their aunt, Winifred, who suffered from the blood disease. But it’s been over the last few years that he has dived into the social justice movement that Colin Kaepernick began when he took a knee during the national anthem to raise awareness for systemic racial inequalities.
McCourty and fellow defensive back Duron Harmon hosted with the Boston Globe last April a discussion on juvenile justice reform for high school student journalists, with a panel including Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son, Jonathan, plus a juvenile judge and criminal justice reform experts. Jason McCourty, David Andrews and Kyle Van Noy attended. Last June, both McCourty twins and Matthew Slater held a DA forum with the candidates in advance of last fall’s election. And this week, on the players’ Tuesday off day, McCourty led a group of 10 other players on a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, the New York Times reported.
During the Patriots’ playoff bye week, the team invited UTEC, a Lowell-based re-entry program serving young adults with a history of serious gang or criminal involvement, to Gillette Stadium. They asked UTEC to make a presentation to a group of players about how their programs engage and transform the people they work with, with a recidivism rate of less than 10%. At the end of the presentation, McCourty and Slater presented the organization with a $75,000 check—the Patriots’ first grant from the team’s new social justice fund, part of the leaguewide social justice partnership agreed on by the NFL and the Players Coalition.
Because of McCourty’s standing on the Patriots—Bill Belichick has said he “couldn’t be prouder to coach a player” like him—the team’s Man of the Year nominee has been able to pull other players into this work, particularly in a league and on a team where the perception is that players must be singularly focused on football.
“Being an older guy, I felt like it was my calling to get involved,” McCourty says. "Not only get involved, but also, kind of lead the way and let other guys know, if this is something you are interested in, feel free to jump in. We have seen that on our team through the last two years.”
When the Players Coalition held its press conference on Wednesday afternoon, announcing its plans for 2019, McCourty wasn’t there—he was somewhere between the Patriots’ practice field at Georgia Tech and the team’s downtown hotel. He thought back to last year, when McCourty played Jenkins’ and Chris Long’s and Torrey Smith’s Eagles in Super Bowl LII, social advocates who are also among the best football players in the world.
Says McCourty, “I thought it ended all questions that people had, can these guys focus on their careers and off-the-field work?”
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