According to popular perception, New England Patriots players are nameless, faceless automatons who only exist to play football and quote cliches about how they’re trying to get better every day, right?
Wrong. At least, not in their current incarnation.
The Patriots’ locker room actually has one of the highest concentrations of NFL players on the forefront of fighting social injustice. The Patriots gained the reputation as a politically right-leaning organization after Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady all were tied to Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential election. That is not an accurate portrayal of the team as a whole.
“I think they actually have one of the better locker rooms when you talk about guys being active in social justice,” Players Coalition co-founder and retired NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin told NESN.com.
It’s not as if players are catching the team by surprise with their beliefs or activism, either. The Patriots acquired defensive end Michael Bennett in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles over the offseason. Bennett, like his brother and former Patriots tight end Martellus, has always been outspoken and is one of the few NFL players who stayed in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem as a form of protest against social injustice this preseason. Bennett would not say if he intends to stay in the locker room for the playing of the national anthem during the regular season, as well.
The Patriots also signed tight end Ben Watson over the offseason. Watson, along with Patriots safety Devin McCourty, is in the Players Coalition task force. The Players Coalition’s key pillars are police and community relations, criminal justice reform and education and economic advancement.
Watson is proof that the Players Coalition isn’t strictly a liberal endeavor. The suspended tight end helped restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies in Louisiana. He has criticized Trump and accused the president of racism on social media. He’s also an opponent of Planned Parenthood and a pro-life advocate as an evangelical Christian.
Watson explained to NESN that faith, family and justice are his most important tenets.
Safety Duron Harmon, wide receiver Matthew Slater and cornerback Jason McCourty also have been involved in fighting for social justice as part of the Players Coalition. Slater, Harmon and the McCourty twins testified at the Massachusetts State House this spring to support a bill, the PROMISE Act, that would raise education spending. They collectively wrote an op-ed in The Boston Globe in support of increasing spending on low-income students in Massachusetts.
Devin McCourty also co-penned an op-ed in The Boston Globe with Robert and (Patriots president) Jonathan Kraft supporting juvenile justice reform. Wide receiver Julian Edelman showed his support for marriage equality in 2015. Linebacker Elandon Roberts spoke out about bias-based traffic stops this offseason.
“I think now with certain issues that throughout the league, in all sports, guys have been more outspoken,” McCourty said. “I think this group of men in this locker room have been just as outspoken as any locker room. And I think that helps build and bond players together across the league.”
Prior to the 2016 election, one of Trump’s Make America Great Again hats was spotted in Brady’s locker. Belichick wrote a letter to Trump before the election, though the head coach said it was not political in nature. Kraft donated $1 million to Trump’s campaign.
Like with the Players Coalition, however, not everything is so partisan in nature atop the Patriots organization. Belichick also is friendly with former Massachusetts senator and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, a democrat. Belichick was a registered democrat while living in New York in 1998. Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, said in an Instagram comment that she and Brady don’t “back” Trump.
Brady, along with many other players, skipped attending a ceremony at the White House in 2017 after the Patriots won Super Bowl LI. The Patriots didn’t visit the White House this spring after winning Super Bowl LIII nor do they intend to go during the 2019 season despite playing in Baltimore and Washington D.C. The White House canceled the Philadelphia Eagles’ visit in 2018. As recently as March, Trump reportedly wanted Kraft and the Patriots to visit the White House.
Kraft caught Boldin by surprise when he supported McCourty in the “raise the age” juvenile justice reform campaign given his ties to Trump.
“To be honest with you, initially yes,” Boldin said. “At the same time, though, it would be ignorant of me or anyone else to place all owners in the same box. Because just like football players, we’re not all the same. We don’t all think the same. We don’t all feel the same. So, we have different opinions. And Robert Kraft has come out and said that he is friends with Donald Trump, but there also are some things that he doesn’t agree with when it comes to ideas as far as Trump. It’s one thing to say that, but to actually put action behind those words is something completely different.”
The Patriots also have support from Belichick.
“People think we don’t speak our minds because of what we say to the media,” Harmon said over the summer. “They don’t realize that what you say to the media can be used against you in certain different situations. We’re just protective of what we say, but as far as being ourselves, we express ourselves all the time.
“Bill understands what we do obviously for social injustice, working with the Players Coalition. But he never ever came to us about, ‘Ah, no, you don’t need to do this.’ He actually supports us because he knows that’s for the betterment of not just the team but for the country. We’re doing something bigger than ourselves, and he obviously supports that. We’re not just going to go out there and say, ‘we’re going to get 20 interceptions this year. We’re going to go undefeated.’ We’re not going to say anything about evaluating players. We’re going to do everything the smart way. We’re going to speak. We’re going to be respectful to the media. We’re going to answer the questions that they ask us, but at the end of the day, we’re not going to give any information to our opponents or anything like that. It can be used against us.”
The Patriots are focused on winning and avoiding distractions. Being active in the community and standing up for causes cannot be used against the Patriots on the football field.
“I’ve never felt handcuffed or handicapped in that regard,” Slater said. “I feel like there’s a way to do it, and certainly that way is different for everyone. I’ve always felt like in the way that I feel I should be operating I’ve been supported. I feel comfortable in doing so, and I’m certainly thankful for that.
“I know why I’m here. I understand what’s the priority for coach and other players here, but I feel like as long as I’m taking care of that, I’ve been given my platform to speak to causes that are important to me. I haven’t been told otherwise, so I’m going to keep doing it until I’m told otherwise.”
Bennett, unlike the McCourtys, Harmon, Slater and Watson, is not part of the Player Coalition. Other NFL players like Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid and Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills split from the Players Coalition in 2017 and have criticized the organization for working too closely with the league. Boldin is supportive of “anybody who is trying to make a difference,” however. That certainly applies to Bennett.
“I think it’s important being able to talk about issues that are important to you,” Bennett said this summer. “I think that’s our role as human beings. At the end of the day, each person’s a part of the team. The most important thing is everyone is involved in the human race. What happens to the human race is important to everybody. I think it’s important to people like me, and all of us use our voices for things that are happening in our society. I think it’s important because our kids are looking up to us, and we are the role models. A role model isn’t just sticking to scoring touchdowns or making big plays. It’s also about being a great human being, being a great father, being a great citizen. Those are the things I think are important.”
There undoubtedly will be fans who read what these players are saying and doing and wish they would “stick to sports.” And the reason these Patriots players won’t is that they feel passionate about issues beyond football, and they know they have the power, stature and influence to make a change.