They're used to rushing, tackling, and taking hits in front of 65,000 screaming spectators. But it was a whole different ball game when three New England Patriots came to a much smaller stage at a middle school in Boston's inner city this week to challenge five candidates vying to be district attorney on how they'd make the criminal justice system more fair.
"[My] nervous level is pretty high right now," conceded player Matthew Slater, as the auditorium began to fill up. Each clutching a wad of notes, his teammates Jason and Devin McCourty, seemed to feel the same way.
"It's been a little intimidating to be honest," allowed Jason, who noted that he and his teammates were definitely "out of their field." When the idea first came up to take player's activism beyond kneeling on the field to moderating a community forum on some of the issues underlying the on-field protests, the players were dubious.
"All of us at first were like 'huh? What do you mean us host a forum?'"recalls Devin.
Ultimately, the three volunteered to do it, hoping their celebrity would help bring more attention to the issues of police violence and racial inequities that's been building since players first started taking a knee during the national anthem. While Slater did not kneel last season because of "personal reasons," the McCourty brothers did. Now, all three say they're focused on gaining ground off the field, in the political arena.
"The anthem had its role," says Devin McCourty. "But I think, if we just took a knee every Sunday and we did that for five years, would anything change in the communities? I don't think so. I think this is the focus."
The players dismiss suggestions from some that they ought to just stick to their sports. "We're citizens first," said Slater. "We were citizens before we started playing football and we're going to be citizens after, and we want to be involved ... and make a difference where we can."
To begin the forum, Devon McCourty declared the "criminal justice system is broken."
"Our most vulnerable and historically most marginalized communities are harmed the most," said the two-time Superbowl champ.
McCourty went on to make the case for why the district attorney's race matters. "DAs have the power to prosecute and the power to sentence," he told the crowd. "But they also have the power to seek mercy and second chances."
Players threw out questions on discriminatory policing, immigration, racial disparities in bail, and mass incarceration. Candidates insisted they get it.
"I know the difference between a criminal and someone who needs a second chance," said Evandro Carvalho.
"We deserve a criminal justice system where wealth and race-based disparities are eliminated," offered Rachael Rollins.
"If you continue to prosecute people, and not the conditions that exist that cause people to act out, you will end up with the exact same result: Mass incarceration," said Linda Champion.
Things got a little testier as some candidates struck a different tone.
"I don't hate on police," said Independent candidate Michael Maloney. "I am very good friends with a number of law enforcement individuals."
He got heckled by several in the audience, and as the evening went on, the audience grew increasingly unruly, leaving players struggling to maintain control.
"Hold up ... hold up ... hold up! Can I just say something?" interjected Jason McCourty over the crowd. Saying he respected their passion, he implored audience members to "just give everybody chance to listen," even as the yelling and heckling continued.
The candidates forum was the latest in a "Launching Justice: Conversations with District Attorney Candidates" series organized by The Players Coalition across the nation. That group recently struck a deal with NFL owners for a $90 million campaign for social justice and racial equality.
While some players have dismissed the deal as a sell-out, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Harry Edwards calls it the right strategy, especially since he says players' on-field protests have been wrongly cast as unpatriotic.
President Trump has been among the most vocal critics, calling the players who kneel during the anthem "sons of bitches" at a rally in Huntsville, Ala. last year. In a tweet a few months before, he called the on-field protests "unacceptable," and called for players who kneel to be fired or suspended for "disrespecting our Flag & Country."
Edwards says this kind of activism, like moderating a debate, is not vulnerable to the same tactics. "[The players] are doing something productive and constructive without falling into the kinds of patriotic quicksand traps that have been thrown up and fueled and inflamed by the current administration," he says.
Edwards says players' activism is increasing pressure on owners to also respond. "Just look at the numbers of black athletes ... in the NFL," he says. "Owners have to realize ... [players] are not going to be leaving their cultural sentiments and issues at the locker room door."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft — a longtime friend of Trump's — has criticized the president's stance on the issue, and has indicated full support for the players' activism both on and off the field, noting last season that he supports players' "right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful."
Earlier this year, he teamed up with players to write an op-ed in the Boston Globe, calling for changes to Massachusetts juvenile justice laws. More recently, he successfully lobbied with players to raise the age that children can be prosecuted in the juvenile system from 7 to 12 years old. This week, Pats owners applauded players' efforts at the DA candidates' forum, commending "their approach in engaging in these meaningful and thought-provoking dialogues with audiences who can administer change."
What was supposed to be an hour-and-a-half event went nearly twice that long. Devin McCourty ended the panel by beseeching everyone in the packed room to "make sure you go and vote." Then, the players were mobbed by grateful voters and by adoring fans seeking selfies and autographs.
Dorchester resident Judy Rose, 36, praised the players for knowing their stuff, and for using their star-power to draw people in.
"My son is excited to be here and normally he's like 'Aw, mom, why?'" she says. "But he's excited and he was actually listening."
"They looked good up there," quipped candidate Linda Champion, when asked what she thought of the players' performance. She hailed their efforts to use their celebrity for the good of the community. "Particularly where you have a community that doesn't come out to vote, anyone you can bring to help people understand the importance of voting, I'll take them," she said.
The players also won over Shamieh Wall, a 33-year-old senior systems analyst. "I'm not going to lie. I'm skeptical about it," she said a few minutes before the forum began. "I don't want them to use this as a platform just to talk about on Twitter."
But moments after the event, she was impressed. "I think they did a good job," she said. "They came with their statistics, and they were ready to talk about issues that relate to this particular community."
Others said they wished the players had put more pressure on candidates who were trying to bob and weave their way around questions.
"They should have been tougher on them," said recent high school graduate Peter Francois, who thought the players were just "a little bit out of their league."
Carla Sheffield, whose son was fatally shot by a police officer, was also frustrated that players didn't press some questions harder.
"I just want to know if they would prosecute a police officer," she said after the panel ended. Players were apologetic, and she was quick to forgive, pivoting to ask McCourty to take a picture with her.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Some NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem to call attention to police violence and racism are now working off the football field in the political arena. Last night in Massachusetts, three New England Patriots took on five candidates for district attorney, grilling them on how they would make the criminal justice system more fair. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: They're used to rushing, tackling and taking hits in front of 65,000 screaming spectators, but it was a different ballgame last night at an inner-city middle school, facing five candidates vying to be district attorney in the Boston area.
MATTHEW SLATER: Nervous level is pretty high right now.
SMITH: Patriots player Matthew Slater clutched a wad of notes as he sat down with teammates and twin brothers Jason and Devin McCourty.
DEVIN MCCOURTY: All of us at first was like, huh, you know? What do you mean us host a forum?
JASON MCCOURTY: It's been a little intimidating, to be honest with you.
SMITH: But ultimately, the three volunteered to do it, hoping to highlight the issues players started to raise by taking a knee.
D. MCCOURTY: The anthem had its role. But I think if we just took a knee every Sunday, and we did that for five years, would anything change in the communities? I don't think so. I think this is the focus.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please join me in welcoming our first moderator, Devin McCourty.
SMITH: The two-time Super Bowl champ came out strong.
D. MCCOURTY: Our criminal justice system is broken. And our most marginalized communities, they are harmed the most.
SMITH: McCourty went on to make the case for why the DA's race matters.
D. MCCOURTY: DAs have the power to prosecute, the power to sentence, but they also have the power to seek mercy and second chances.
SMITH: It set the tone for the whole forum, as players threw out questions on discriminatory policing, immigration, racial disparities in bail and mass incarceration. And candidates insisted they get it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Also, as Devin said, I know the difference between a criminal and someone who needs a second chance.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We deserve a criminal justice system where wealth- and race-based disparities are eliminated.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: If you continue to prosecute people and not prosecute the conditions that exist that cause people to act out, you will end up with the exact same result - mass incarceration.
SMITH: Things got a little testier as some candidates struck a different tone.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I don't hate on police.
SMITH: Several got heckled, and the audience grew increasingly unruly.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Screaming) They asked him a question, and they want the answer to the question.
SMITH: Leaving players struggling to maintain control.
J. MCCOURTY: Hold on. Hold on. Can I just say something? Just give everybody a chance to listen. I respect you all, like...
SMITH: The forum was the latest in a series organized by the Players Coalition, a group that recently struck a deal with NFL owners for a $90 million campaign for social justice. While some players have dismissed the deal as a sellout, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Harry Edwards calls it good strategy.
HARRY EDWARDS: They're doing something that's constructive and productive without falling into the kinds of patriotic quicksand traps that have been thrown up, fueled and inflamed by the current administration.
SMITH: Pats players have also lobbied successfully to loosen Massachusetts juvenile justice laws in addition to holding court at last night's community forum.
D. MCCOURTY: Make sure you go out there and vote September 4. Thank you.
SMITH: Many in the audience, like 36-year-old Judy Rose, praised the players for knowing their stuff and drawing people in.
JUDY ROSE: My son is excited to be here. And normally, he's like, (groaning), Mom, why? But he's excited, and he was actually listening.
SMITH: Several, though, like Carla Sheffield, whose son was fatally shot by a police officer, were frustrated that players didn't press some questions harder.
CARLA SHEFFIELD: I just want to know if they would prosecute a police officer.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I wanted to ask - I wanted to ask - I wanted to ask - well, they all said that they would.
SMITH: But then, moments later.
SHEFFIELD: Can you take this picture for me, please?
SMITH: For their part, Patriots players called the night a learning experience, but definitely a win. Just having the conversation, they say, helps move the ball down the field. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.