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Guregian: Bill Belichick faces tricky job navigating anthem issue with Patriots

September 27, 2017 GMT

Just like the 31 other NFL teams, the Patriots had to respond.

Now they have to navigate one of the most divisive issues anywhere — race — after one of the more uncharacteristic displays of the Belichick era happened on Sunday.

The Patriots couldn’t just stand by after President Trump called out NFL players last Friday saying “any son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag” should be fired by the owners.

What Trump did, according to former Patriots offensive lineman Damien Woody, was throw a can of “lighter fluid” on the race issue in America. And that lighter fluid ignited inside the Patriots locker room.

You can’t escape the racial issues that plague the country simply by stepping inside that locker room. But Belichick’s coaching philosophy — do your job, ignore the noise — has generally done a good job of focusing players’ attention on the field and blocking out the distractions (be they football or political) during his 18 seasons in New England.

Still, Sunday’s protest on the sideline was disjointed and surprising for a Belichick team. Sixteen players knelt. Others stood locked arm in arm. Others stood at attention. But there was no unified presentation, as other teams (including the Texans across the Gillette Stadium field) displayed.

Now Belichick’s Patriots, like the NFL, are in uncharted territory. It’s the first time in the Belichick era we’ve seen a Patriots team allow an outside issue to overtake the primary objective before kickoff.

So is this issue going to linger and divide the locker room? Or can it become a unifying force, as players suggested in recent days?

Belichick said in a statement the team would “work together to find the best way to proceed.”

So how does he get everyone back focused on doing their jobs and ignoring the distractions?

“This is tough because, at the end of the day, you have to remember, the players do have lives,” said former NFL head coach Brian Billick, now an NFL Network analyst. “They’re not just football players. You have to respect that. But by the same token, your relationship with them .?.?. they’re employees. They’re there to do a job.”

Former Pats offensive lineman Matt Light saw the protest as abandoning the so-called Patriot Way and, in his view, disrespecting the flag. He also questions how unified the Patriots actually are about this issue.

“This is the first time I’ve seen guys ignore those principles and act on their own and in the interest of something other than winning a football game,” Light told the Herald in a text yesterday. “The players can talk all they want about not being divided, but their actions have spoken, and it tells a much different story.

“The good news is that you can still win football games as a divided team. The bad news is that it’s much harder.”

Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison sees this issue as far greater than the Patriot Way.

“We’re talking about lives. We’re talking about freedom. We’re talking about the opportunity to express yourself. We’re talking equality over inequality,” Harrison said. “So it’s bigger than the (expletive) football game. It’s bigger than the Patriot Way.”

Harrison knows there’s a natural divide between players of different races. There are different viewpoints, and that showed up in the responses for this story. But the common goal, he said, should help in being a uniting factor on the field.

“The misunderstanding is .?.?. that all black people are sitting about race. It’s not just about race. It’s about being treated the right way and being treated as an equal and not having people look beneath you,” Harrison said. “It’s very difficult to explain because it’s a very emotional topic. Look, if I had to speak to the locker room, I would just tell them some people like blondes, some people like brunettes, everyone’s different. But when we’re on the football field, and when we’re in this locker room, we are a team. No one says 53 guys are all going to agree on things. But we agree on one thing: that as far as preparation and hard work, all these things that make us successful, we’ve got to be together.”

Harrison also encourages the white players and coaches to learn from the black players and coaches.

Don’t be shy.

“Ask questions,” Harrison said. “Talk to each other. See what they’re thinking. See what they’re feeling. I became good buddies (with teammates) after conversations about family, about religion, about political views, about spirituality, all those things.”

Harrison did not believe this would divide the room because of the leadership and foundation in place.

“This team has gone through a lot the last few years,” Harrison said. “If anything, this is something that’s going to make them even tighter.”

Woody agreed.

“The Patriots have a bunch of smart dudes in there, good leaders. They’re willing to talk about these things,” said Woody, now an ESPN analyst. “If their minds are open and ears are open, it can be positive. If you have a bunch of close-minded dudes that don’t want to have this conversation, it can hinder a locker room.”

Former Patriots running back Heath Evans also is confident Belichick, once he determines that “best way to proceed,” won’t allow anyone to deviate from that path.

“If you are a part of the distraction, if you are creating tension, angst, divide, lack of focus in that locker room, you will be warned appropriately, then you’ll be dismissed,” Evans said. “That’s why it’ll never have an impact in that locker room. Other locker rooms without great leadership? Absolutely.”

Woody said this issue is different than any the team encountered during his time in New England (1999-2003), even the Sept.??11 attacks.

“With 9/11, we had one common enemy. It was our country against a common enemy,” Woody said. “This issue is something that’s plagued our whole country for centuries, and it’s something we’ve never reconciled with. We want to sweep it under the rug. We don’t want to deal with it. “

Former NFL coach Herm Edwards, now an ESPN analyst, said Belichick will surely entertain players’ input on how to move forward.

“When you sit in a leadership position, it’s about providing hope and solutions for whatever problems that are there. That’s coaching 101,” Edwards said. “That’s your role. You look at situations, and you have to figure it out. But it starts with conversation.”

Billick agreed, and the Super Bowl XXXV-winning coach said Belichick will navigate a path that allows players’ emotions and job duties to marry up.

“An NFL locker room is very diverse. And yet you have to come together as a single unit in a very passionate, physical game in the brotherhood you hear everybody talk about,” Billick said. “It’s a nice microcosm as to how you deal with that at the end of the day as a coach. Unfortunately, not to be mercenary about it, at the end of the day, as a coach, that’s not how I’m going to be judged. How I’m going to be judged is by winning and losing. Period.”

David Harris and Adam Butler were two of the kneelers on Sunday. Yesterday, both said everyone was on the same page.

“The focus is moving forward together, all in one accord,” Butler said. “It’s not individually. We’re in this together.”

Belichick might already have the team back on message, and it’s on to Carolina.