FOXBORO - From Devin McCourty's perspective, it didn't have to go this way.
The NFL's anthem policy has reappeared in headlines since changes were implemented at the league's spring meetings last week. Though players are allowed to stay in the locker room for the playing of the anthem, teams will now be subjected to discipline should their players take the sidelines and do not stand for the anthem.
McCourty explained on Thursday that the anthem policy, which the NFLPA has said was adopted without player input, felt like owners trying to "lay the hammer down" on players.
"The NFL's a group where you have owners and players, but it can work together," McCourty said. "We'll see how that works out, how it plays itself out."
McCourty has been outspoken about the anthem issue for more than a year now. Immediately after the playing of the anthem at the 2016 season-opener, McCourty and Martellus Bennett raised fists in the air. McCourty was among a group of Patriots players who knelt during the anthem before their Week 3 game against the Texans.
McCourty understood that change to the anthem policy would likely be coming, but he felt as though the solution - and the way in which that solution was reached - should have been different. From his perspective, a better alternative would have been to go back to the way things were just before McCourty entered the NFL as a rookie in 2009. That was the year the league began to have teams on the field for the anthem. Prior to that, teams remained in their locker rooms until moments before kickoff.
"If you're going to change the rule," he said, "doesn't that make more sense than telling a guy, if you go, you have to do this? You know what I mean?
"I felt the rule was going to change. I thought [staying in the locker rooms] was the best solution. I think we all knew something was going to happen. I thought that was the best way. [That way] it doesn't allow anyone to be different."
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Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin co-founded the Players Coalition that has teamed with owners on a $90 million initiative to tackle social justice issues. In an interview with the Associated Press in March, following a summit at Harvard Law School that was attended by both McCourty and Jenkins, McCourty said he was encouraged by the league's support of the players' goal to take on subjects like criminal justice and education reform.
"I think the NFL has seen the bigger picture," McCourty said at the time, "that this is not just the players trying to do something to give back -- but these are real issues that not just the players should care about but we should all care about."
On Thursday, he said he thought the new anthem policy was a step in the wrong direction for the relationship between players and owners.
"To me, the disappointing part of it is owners across the league have been all in on helping the players understand this," he said. "So, then when the rule came out it was like, 'Wait...We've been doing so many great things, why send this to the public and make it seem like the players are the bad guys again?' To me, that was the disappointing part."
McCourty said he believes players will seek avenues to have the policy changed again, but there's uncertainty as to whether or not players will have a seat at the table moving forward when it comes to the anthem.
"I guess the thing is now, for us as players, is it our decision? I would hope there would be some wiggle room to change it," he said. "I guess not even wiggle. Let's just change this thing. But I don't know. I don't know how we get that done."
There remains the possibility that players may protest during the anthem now not only to bring awareness to social issues . . . but to protest the anthem rule itself. Jets CEO Christopher Johnson has already said he would pay any anthem fine his team is assessed next season.
"Anytime something happens like that," McCourty said, "and people don't agree with that, you can take everything else out of it. Protesting, reasons...Some people might say, 'I just don't like the rule so I want to do something to go against the rule.' I knew that was a possibility as soon as I heard the rule. Like, this is silly. This is dumb."