FOXBORO -- They're on to the 2018 season. No days off. Do your job.
But for Patriots players who are interested in helping create change -- whether it's via criminal justice reform or in the name of greater social and racial equality -- there's time for off-field pursuits even with on-field work as the focus this time of year.
"We’ve already mapped out what you can and can’t do," Devin McCourty said earlier in training camp. "It’s just different. In the spring, we’re balancing family time and doing stuff like that. Now, with the season, you have the season and family, and then when we still can, we’ll do things."
McCourty was among the many Players Coalition representatives league-wide who kept busy this offseason.
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He along with his brother Jason McCourty and teammate Matthew Slater moderated a discussion between five candidates for Suffolk County District Attorney in Dorchester back in June. On the table were a multitude of topics focused on improving the criminal justice system as well as potential policy changes that might help foster safer communities. It was one of many efforts on the Players Coalition's part to help steer the attention away from pregame protests and toward efforts being made to effect meaningful change in cities that need it.
"If you listen to what players are saying all along, you know, taking a knee was a protest to get people to understand what we were trying to do," McCourty said at the time. "This is what we were trying to do. We're trying to make changes to the community . . . That has been our focus all along."
In April, the McCourtys and Duron Harmon hosted a panel that included Robert and Jonathan Kraft, Kyle Van Noy, David Andrews and judge Gloria Tan for student journalists about criminal-justice reform and what the Players Coalition calls the "school-to-prison pipeline."
In March, Devin McCourty and Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown went to Beacon Hill to discuss reforming the juvenile justice and public education systems.
Now with football in full swing, players may not have as much time as they did in the spring for those types of pursuits, but they still plan to use the time they have to continue the positive momentum they feel they've built over the last year.
There may be no busier time for players than training camp. They're away from their families, living in team hotels, breathing football for a few weeks. But the McCourtys, Harmon and other Patriots had one small way to spark discussion during camp practice last week, wearing t-shirts under their pads that spoke to the school-to-prison pipeline.
"We're just trying to create a topic of conversation and change there so that these young troubled youth, instead of being pushed to prison can be pushed in another direction where they can get help," Harmon said. "A lot of these kids are dealing with a lot of things that the school system doesn't really know. If we can get some more help for these young students, young kids, it would allow for us not only to decrease the population in prison, but it would also give them a chance at a better life, to be able to succeed in life rather than sit in prison and end up part of the cycle of going in and out of prison."
While players understand the anthem will likely remain in the news, they've made it clear they want to make sure they're doing what they can to steer the conversation down what they view as a more productive avenue.
"That's what the main objective is," Harmon said. "I'm glad that we're moving in the direction that we are because now we're able to have these types of healthy conversations . . . Given our platform, it's an opportunity for us to be not only athletes but positive role models who not only care about our sport but care about the world and making it better."
"Just keep giving us more coverage," McCourty said. "I think the more it’s written about and talked about, I think it comes to the forefront. But, I think like obviously with training camp coming back, the preseason . . . we’ll probably be bombarded with a ton of anthem stories. I’m sure as the weeks go on, you guys will ask me about the anthem more. So, don’t worry, I’ll keep having good off-the-field things that we’ve been doing to tell you."
Patriots players showed over the winter that they can focus on their on-the-field jobs while using their downtime to help push reform. In early January, during their bye week prior to a playoff run that got them to Super Bowl LII, Devin McCourty, Slater, Harmon, former Patriots corner Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Kraft went to Harvard Law School to meet with criminal justice reform advocates.
If they can find time to do more of the same this year, they will. But even if they can do something as simple as wearing a message on their chest, one that might get some attention on social media or beyond, that's an opportunity they don't want to pass up.
"Obviously with it being football season, our main focus right now is playing football," Harmon said. "But any time we can do something . . . Obviously, we're going to do more of our extensive stuff, meeting with different legislative houses, mayors, going to different conferences -- that's going to be in the spring when we can all get together. But now it's all about when we have an opportunity to spread light on something, we'll do it. Today it just happened to be with a t-shirt."