Devin McCourty tackles criminal justice reform

New England Patriots co-captain sits down with CommonWealth magazine to discuss his platform for change

When New England Patriots co-captain Devin McCourty joined the protests first set off by Colin Kaepernick and “took a knee” during the National Anthem last season, he was making a statement about racial justice issues in the country and the treatment of blacks by law enforcement officials.

President Trump quickly “hijacked” the issue, McCourty says on the Codcast, by painting it as a sign of disrespect toward those who have served in the military. It’s an absurd charge, says the team’s standout free safety, adding that many of those protesting have family members who serve in the military or who have given their lives for their country. But the controversy over the symbolic protests did reinforce for McCourty a belief in the need to take more tangible steps to back up the broad statements with real work at the ground level.

That has led the soft-spoken NFL star into a new role: champion of criminal justice reform. In February, he co-authored an op-ed in the Boston Globe with team owner Robert Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft, calling on Beacon Hill leaders to enact reforms related to juveniles, and McCourty made a trip to the State House to lobby for the issue. He gives a huge shout-out to the team owners for their willingness to get involved in the issue. “This is real life,” he says. “I think it shows more of who they are as people.”

The bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed in April included one of two provisions they called for – raising the age at which children can be charged in juvenile court from 7 to 12. They also urged lawmakers to raise the lower age of adult court jurisdiction from 18 to 19, a move that the bill established a task force to study. McCourty says too many kids with great potential get stuck with juvenile records at very young ages that mark them for failure.

Next up for McCourty and other players could be an effort to promote greater attention to the open race for Suffolk County district attorney, a position with enormous power to decide who and what to prosecute.

McCourty played down his involvement in criminal justice reform and race issues, saying professional athletes have long taken up various causes, citing the work of players on everything from diabetes to cancer to Tom Brady’s Best Buddies International initiative, which aids intellectually and developmentally disabled people.

As worthy as those efforts are, they are safe ground.

McCourty and other black players are stirring conversation on what has long been one of the most difficult issues in American life. “I think we’ve always lived with it, but I think we’re starting to see that we have a platform that can create change,” he says of the decision of black players to take on race issues. “It hasn’t been all easy and all smiles,” he says of the reaction they’ve drawn.

His Twitter feed has blown up with hate-filled, racist messages of all kinds. He says Trump’s attacks on the players have helped enable that. “I think there’s probably been people who have felt that way for years and they just stay in their little bubble, and now they have the confidence because he’s the president of the United States, and if he says it, they’re like, this is okay,” says McCourty.

But McCourty is a glass-half-full guy, suggesting that Trump has done a service of a sorts by unwittingly forcing a conversation that has long been submerged below the surface. “I think because of his remarks, you now have a conversation and a topic that has to be addressed, and people want to address it,” he says.

We’re getting “comfortable talking about uncomfortable things,” he says, hopefully.

Meet The Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth Beacon

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