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Work in Massachusetts shows impact of Players Coalition

BOSTON -- Amid a riveting panel discussion at a symposium Friday at Harvard Law School centering around criminal justice, a gentleman turned to fellow panelist Devin McCourty, the Patriots safety, and thanked him because as an NFL player, "the easy thing to do is cut a check and walk away. You're working toward a larger cause and leveraging your name and reputation for action."

The day before, McCourty and former Patriots star Troy Brown, were at the Massachusetts State House with lawmakers, lobbying for legislation -- that included previous efforts started by Johnson Bademosi, Matthew Slater and Duron Harmon -- to raise the age for youths before being subjected to the juvenile disciplinary system.

Patriots owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft, along with McCourty, also penned an op-end in the Boston Globe Super Bowl Sunday, supporting the need to alter the juvenile punishment in Massachusetts.

Their efforts paid off as a new criminal justice package, which had been slow in developing, was filed to the State House on Friday. The raising of the age for those entering the juvenile system from seven to 12, was part of the amendments for which the players really pushed.

The package still has to be voted on by the State House and Senate and then signed by Governor Charlie Baker.

McCourty said he was told by those who have been working on the revised pact that the players' efforts and presence brought attention and an urgency to the scripting of the package, which had been slow in finalizing.

A result like what just happened in Massachusetts is a signal that NFL players' platforms, voices and time they've given to causes they've deemed critical in balancing the social scales, have impact.

Their celebrity has opened doors, McCourty, Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin admitted. Their willingness has invited scholars and advocates to join their cause and educate them. Their presence has been a swing vote of sorts.

Watching members of the Players Coalition in action at Harvard Law School unveiled a sincerity to the cause that can't be captured in photo opportunities. Jenkins captivated an audience of lawyers, future lawyers and lawmakers, social activists and academics when speaking about the need to provide options for those exiting the penal system -- and options for those to avoid the penal system, altogether.

He told a story of a family member who lived in northern New Jersey who was struggling in school and headed in the wrong direction. That family member moved to Piscataway, New Jersey, where Jenkins is from, and got things on track and prospered.

"The only thing that changed was the location," Jenkins said. "Not the person. Not the work ethic."

So, one of the many missions being pushed by Jenkins and the Players' Coalition, is strengthening communities and social programs at the grass roots level by working with law enforcement, schools and organizations to provide options for success and to reduce skepticism and fear -- from all sides.

Players, according to Jenkins, are working even harder to keep families together by pushing politicians to relax arrests and imprisonment for minor misdemeanors and coming up with job programs and ways for those who have been jailed to re-join society in healthy environments.

Right now, Jenkins said, too many people are jailed for minor infractions and when they come out, employment and housing are hard to get. Also, re-introducing people to the areas where they got in trouble in the first place has proven a gateway to recidivism. The goal is to force change.

"We often forget that some of these communities don't have a first chance," Jenkins said.

And these players aren't relenting. Jenkins said the group's meeting with lawmakers and law enforcement aren't just one-time visits. There is legitimate follow through and pressure to make change. With politics, McCourty told me, it won't happen overnight, but an evolution to progress to better than a devolution of hope.

NFL owners have pledged $89 million to help players and the Players Coalition with their efforts. The pledge has been viewed skeptically by some as a purchased trade so players won't kneel or gesture during the playing of the national anthem before games but Jenkins, Boldin, McCourty, Torrey Smith and others said these players weren't bought.

If players want to protest, they'll protest. Just like if players want to be a part of the Players Coalition or do community work on their own, they can and will.

Boldin told me that he's heard from more and more players showing interest in doing things in their respective markets and feels momentum growing. Jenkins said that when the Eagles and other teams come together for offseason workouts, they'll have a ton of free time to help in communities.

The Players Coalition is, "just trying to draw a lot of attention and really educate the public about some of these things that are going on," Jenkins told me. "Some of the disparities that are showing up in our system and how they can be part of that change."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter at @wyche89

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