When Devin McCourty saw life leaving George Floyd, on video, last week, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. “I’m like, there’s no way this cop is going to keep his knee on this guy’s neck,” says McCourty, a safety for the New England Patriots, in an interview with TIME. “There’s no way that’s happening.” Floyd’s death left McCourty, an active member of the Players’ Coalition — a group founded by NFL players that seeks to “end social justices and racial inequality” — heartbroken. And photos on social media showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who’s been charged with third degree murder and manslaughter in connection with Floyd’s death, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, next to a shot of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem before an NFL game, moved him.
“If you look at that picture and you listen to his interview from a couple of years ago, he talked about how [kneeling] had nothing to do with the military,” says McCourty, in reference to Kaepnick’s protest during the anthem. “This is for people who are on the streets, who are being abused. For cops who are abusing their authority. If you listen to that, then you look a the picture, it almost brings you to tears. Because you’re like, he’s right. He wasn’t right now. He was right when he said it. He would have been right years ago.”
Turns out that athletes like Kaepernick, who’ve grown more emboldened to engage in social demonstration and discourse in recent years, were on to something. By refusing to “stick to sports,” like their critics demanded, athletes weren’t posing for attention, or showing disrespect for their country and their flag. Instead, the were tapping into the widespread frustration with racial inequality that’s on vivid display, through social unrest in cities across the country — and the world — in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. They symbolized a movement that was to come.
Even though sports has largely shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes have continued using their platforms. Kaepernick has launched a legal defense fund to pay for legal assistance for protestors in Minneapolis. Rising Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest in his hometown; Indiana Pacers point guard Malcolm Brogdon joined him. “Do you understand NOW!!??!!” LeBron James wrote to his 65.5 million Instagram followers last week, to accompany a picture of Chauvin and Kaepernick side by side.
Once sports do make their return from the Covid-19 stoppages, we might now see a second wave of athlete activism, during the national anthem and otherwise, that reminds people that the players themselves can suffer a fate similar to Floyd’s. “It can happen to us, really,” says Carolina Panthers left tackle Russell Okung, who has raised his fist during the anthem. “There’s going to be more killings until accountability happens. And athletes are going to be moved into action.”
“I would not be surprised at all,” responds McCourty, when asked if we might see a return of demonstrations that the NFL worked much of the 2017 season to stop; in September of that year, President Trump called protesting players “sons of bitches” at a rally, starting a storm. “One thing I’ve learned since joining the NFL is how smart and how creative guys are in coming up with things outside of football, to make an impact. I can definitely envision something like that happening, if players feel like they’re just not being heard..”
Eric Reid, a free agent safety, started kneeling with his former 49ers teammate Kaepernick in 2016. “To me it doesn’t matter what the gesture is or what happens,” Reid tells TIME. “I want justice, and I want injustice to stop. By whatever means it takes. I won’t be counting the number of people who are protesting or celebrating that it was 10 guys this week, 20 guys the next week. I’ll be happy when we see a decline in police brutality cases. When we see a decline in innocent blood being shed. That is the issue. Unjust murder. I’ll celebrate when that stops.”
Players like Reid, who has continued to kneel during the anthem since 2016, are calling for more than tweets and PR gestures. When 49ers owner Jed York tweeted that he was donating “$1 million dollars to local and national organizations who are creating change,” Reid – who along with Kaepernick filed a collusion grievance against the NFL in 2018 that was eventually settled — wrote on Twitter, “Nobody wants your money Jed. We want justice. We’ve always wanted justice. Y’all are truly diluted.
Okung wants athletes to support litigators working to keep police departments accountable. “I don’t want to hear about your condolences on social media or angry you are. I want to see you talk with your money, contribute to the NAACP defense fund. That’s what I’ll be doing,” says Okung. “Making these gestures have brought amazing awareness. That’s only the first part. If we choose not to step up, then shame on us.”
If the argument that athletes should just “shut up and dribble” and “stick to sports” was flawed before all this unrest, it’s all but untenable now. “For you to feel that way, do you fall along the lines of people who want to stay quiet or are you on the other side, where you think some of this stuff is acceptable?” says McCourty. “Or do you not see us as equals or that we even have the right to say anything? Do you just see as as for lack of better words, stupid black players that happen to be athletes, and they just need to do that?”
McCourty actually understands a fan’s desire to keep politics out of football on Sunday afternoons. “It’s like yeah, look, I got you,” McCourty says. “But to me this isn’t really politics. We’re not on here trying to get someone to vote this way or that way. We’re on here to talk about how we save lives. How do people stay alive?”