Just days after he canceled the Philadelphia Eagles’ planned trip to the White House, President Donald Trump did something unexpected: He offered to hear them out.
In a major departure from the heated rhetoric he’s spent the better part of two years slinging in the direction of NFL players, Trump asked players to recommend people they’d like to see pardoned or who they felt were wronged by the justice system:
“I’m going to ask all of those people to recommend to me — because that’s what they’re protesting — people that they think were unfairly treated by the justice system. And I understand that. I’m going to ask them to recommend to me people that were unfairly treated and I’m gonna take a look at those applications and if I find, and my committee finds, that they’ve been unfairly treated than we’ll pardon them. Or at least let them out.”
A number of players responded, calling on the president to commute the sentences of people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.
One of the sports world’s most vocal Trump critics, Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long, published a video to his Twitter profile.
“Mr. President, as of 2012, there were over 11,000 people sitting in federal prisons on marijuana-related offenses. It is now legal recreationally and/or medicinally in almost 30 states. There are people freely profiting off of it, as they should be. Yet still, there are thousands sitting in prison. Those people should be pardoned. There are also numerous cases of people sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes. They should not die in prison, and in most cases, people having served decades have done their time. They should go home.”
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who recently made news when he responded to reporters’ questions with handwritten messages on poster board, posted a video of his own.
“Mr. President, we should pardon those who have life without parole for nonviolent offenses who have served a large portion of their time. Currently, over half of the men and women sentenced to die in federal prison are there because of nonviolent crimes, 30% of which are there for nonviolent drug offenses. And as of 2013, nearly two-thirds of those people were black. Our system is not rehabilitative. There needs to be a focus on helping people become better contributing citizens when they do return to society as well as provide the opportunity to re-enter in a reasonable time for nonviolent offenses.”
Jenkins, along with fellow NFL players Doug Baldwin, Anquan Boldin, and Ben Watson, elaborated on those thoughts in an opinion piece published with The New York Times.
The players note Trump’s recent commendable action commuting Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old woman who was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction. Sadly, many others, just like Johnson, remain in prison for nonviolent offenses. Fixing this will take more than “a handful of pardons,” the players state.
“These are problems that our government has created, many of which occur at the local level,” they write. “If President Trump thinks he can end these injustices if we deliver him a few names, he hasn’t been listening to us.”
Still, he can put his pardon power to good use, chipping away at the number of people serving these sentences. The players suggest commuting sentences of nonviolent drug offenders over the age of 60 who haven’t been recently convicted. That type of approach would make a lot of sense because those people pose little threat to society and cost the government more money than average to keep incarcerated. Beyond that, the players suggest working with the Department of Justice to eliminate life without parole sentences for nonviolent crimes.
There’s something else that seems to get lost in the conversation around anthem protests: These players are more than just players.
“Our being professional athletes has nothing to do with our commitment to fighting injustice,” they argue. “We are citizens who embrace the values of empathy, integrity, and justice, and we will fight for what we believe is right. We weren’t elected to do this. We do it because we love this country, our communities, and the people in them. This is our America, our right.”
A cursory glance into the background of some of the NFL stars caught in the controversy over kneeling shows what kind of people they really are. Jenkins devotes time during the off-season to visiting prisons, speaking with lawmakers about racial justice, and working to improve police-community engagement. Watson has advocated on behalf of Louisiana House Bill 265, which would restore the voting rights to people recently reintegrated into society after serving a prison sentence. Long donated his entire 2017 salary to education initiatives in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia (as well as the three cities he’s played in during his NFL career); in 2015, he launched a foundation to dig water wells for people in rural east Africa. Those are just a few of the many great, charitable things these players do — often to little fanfare.
They’re just citizens using their fame, their money, and their platform to fix some of society’s problems. For all the talk over people kneeling during the anthem, we don’t recognize that it’s these acts of kindness and desire to improve the world that makes them exceptionally patriotic.