It's Not About the Flag or the Anthem. It's About Justice.
These protests have never been about disrespect. Players have always been clear about their goal: to draw attention to and change systemic injustices that plague America’s criminal justice system.
*Coauthored and with research help from Justice Program intern Ty Parks.
Yesterday morning, President Trump took to Twitter — again — to attack National Football League players for kneeling or silently protesting during the national anthem. The public, he said, is “fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our Country, our Flag, and our National Anthem. Weak and out of control!” This marks the 20th time since September that the president has commented about NFL players' actions.
But these protests have never been about disrespect. Players have always been clear about their goal: to draw attention to and change systemic injustices that plague America’s criminal justice system.
Their efforts on the field (and off, as outlined below) make them part of a broader movement for reform — one that many Republicans have joined. One can disagree with the players’ approach, but branding them as dangerous, unpatriotic radicals, or saying they should “stick to sports,” ignores their perspective and the considerable bipartisan support for their work.
Here’s a short guide to what NFL players are actually fighting for and why:
1. Federal Sentencing Reform
While many players have said they hope to raise awareness of broad social problems, such as police brutality and mass incarceration, others are calling for concrete policy change and endorsing specific congressional proposals. One is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (SRCA).
Reintroduced earlier this fall by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the SRCA would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences and let some individuals who are currently incarcerated benefit from other, recent reductions in federal drug sentences. It would also limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, and add funding for programs that will reduce recidivism rates. A similar bill failed in the last Congress, despite broad bipartisan backing and support from experienced law enforcement officers.
The NFL, along with players, have voiced support for the bill. In October, Commissioner Roger Goodell and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin co-wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying the SRCA has the NFL’s “full support,” because it “address many of the issues on which our players have worked to raise awareness of over the last two seasons.”
Goodell and Baldwin closed: “The National Football League applauds the introduction of this bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. We stand ready to work with you to advance this important legislation.”
2. Improving Re-entry Services and Removing Barriers to Employment
Players have also given their support to state and local legislation. Last month, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and his teammates, defensive end Chris Long and wide receiver Torrey Smith, met with Pennsylvania lawmakers to advocate for the Clean Slate Act. The bill would automatically seal the record of individuals convicted of misdemeanor offenses if they avoid crime for 10 years. The move would could make it easier for someone to get a job, or sign a lease to an apartment.
For Jenkins, this work hits close to home. He told lawmakers that his mother had a criminal record and the family struggled as a result. Jenkins also co-authored a CNN op-ed on criminal justice reform with former and current players Anquan Boldin, Glover Quin and Johnson Bademosi. In it, they advocate for expanded re-entry services, like job training while incarcerated.
Helping people rebuild their lives after incarceration is vital — and it’s a value shared by people across the country and political spectrum. Just last year, Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, spoke passionately about the need to improve prisoner reentry to enhance “the human dignity and human potential of vulnerable people.”
3. Bail Reform
Jenkins, Baldwin, and Boldin, along with NFL players Devin McCourty, Ben Watson, and Eric Reid, also recently penned an op-ed calling for bail reform. The athletes explored how some individuals can be locked up for years while waiting for trial on even low-level offenses. They outlined the economic and racial disparities in our current system, which result in the disproportionate pre-trial incarceration of black people. The players cite a shocking ACLU statistic, saying “black people are twice as likely to be in jail because they can’t afford bail as their white counterparts, and they are given higher bail amounts than white defendants facing the same charges.” In their effort to appeal to state and local officials to implement reform, they explain the fiscal and public safety incentives of fairer bail practices.
Their push is part of a broader movement to end cash bail. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a prominent libertarian voice in Congress, joined Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to introduce the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, which would encourage bail reform at the state level.
4. Increasing Community Policing
In March, shortly after the end of the first season where players began protesting, the Congressional Black Caucus hosted a forum titled “NFL Players Speak Up: First-Hand Experiences and Building Trust Between Communities and Police.” The purpose of the event was to build a dialogue that would lead to legislation to fix the broken relationships. It was a powerful platform for players to speak their mind after the first wave of protests, which were a response to police killings of unarmed black men. During the forum, several players shared their own individual experiences, and spoke to broader feelings about law enforcement in communities of color. Boldin participated in the event, and during his testimony revealed that the issue had touched his family personally. His cousin, Corey Jones, was shot and killed by a police officer in 2015.
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President Trump shows no signs of slowing his criticism of NFL players. But these athletes aren’t being disrespectful, and they’re not protesting for its own sake. They’re using their platforms to contribute to a broader movement for criminal justice reform. We just aren’t watching when they’re off the field.