NFL players respond to Trump's pardon offer

The ongoing NFL controversy regarding protests during the national anthem is, at its heart, a request to be heard. The players who knelt during the national anthem last year weren’t doing so to disrespect the flag, but to bring attention to causes of systemic racism and social injustice. And while President Trump inflamed passions against the protesters last fall — and many times since — by trying to paint the silent, nonviolent protests as unpatriotic, he struck a different tone recently, offering to listen to the players’ grievances.

And now, in a New York Times editorial, four players — Doug Baldwin, Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin, and Benjamin Watson — have taken the president up on his offer.

What was Trump’s offer to NFL players?

Earlier this month, shortly after pardoning Alice Johnson, 63, who was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, Trump made an offer that, based on his prior rhetoric, was nothing short of remarkable:

“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,” Trump said. “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.”

There are a number of “if” conditionals in that statement, and plenty of room to move around rhetorically, but — without speculating on whether the offer was in good faith, or indeed if anything will happen at all — the fact that the offer was made at all is a step forward. And now, the players have responded.

Related: See players who protested during the national anthem last season: 

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NFL players, owners protest after criticism from Trump
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NFL players, owners protest after criticism from Trump
Sep 24, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts players kneel during the playing of the National Anthem before the game against the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Baltimore Ravens players kneel for the American National anthem during the NFL International Series match between Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on September 24, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 25: Members of the Dallas Cowboys link arms and kneel during the National Anthem before the start of the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 25, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan links arms with players during the national anthems before the match Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: (L-R) Wide recceivers Chris Moore and Breshad Perriman of the Baltimore Ravens pray prior to kickoff during the NFL match between The Jacksonville Jaguars and The Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium on September 24, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mitchell Gunn/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Jacksonville Jaguar players show their protest during the National Anthem during the NFL International Series match between Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on September 24, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Patrick Omameh of the Jacksonville Jaguars kneels during the U.S. national anthem before the match Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel during the U.S. national anthem before the match Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel during the U.S. national anthem before the match Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Jacksonville Jaguar players show their protest during the National Anthem during the NFL International Series match between Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on September 24, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: (Editors Note: This image has been turned black and white) Jacksonville Jaguars enter te stadium during the NFL International Series match between Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on September 24, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Sep 24, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills players kneel in protest during the National Anthem before a game against the Denver Broncos at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Denver Bronco players kneel in protest during the National Anthem before a game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 25, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) and teammates stand next to service members holding a giant US flag during the national anthem prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; The Cleveland Browns team stand and kneel during the National Anthem before the start of their game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers link arms during the national anthem prior to the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (44) middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead (59) running back Ameer Abdullah (21) outside linebacker Steve Longa (54) defensive end Jeremiah Ledbetter (98) defensive end Armonty Bryant (97) defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (91) and defensive end Cornelius Washington (90) kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
September 24, 2017; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets players lock arms during the national anthem before the game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Members of the Denver Broncos kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 25, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; The Dallas Cowboys players, coaches and staff take a knee prior to the National Anthem before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; London, United Kingdom; Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel during the playing of the United Sates national anthem before a NFL International Series game against the Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; Members of the New England Patriots take a knee during the national anthem before a game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Some of the Miami Dolphins take a knee during the anthem prior to the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; Members of the New England Patriots kneel for the national anthem before the start of the game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel during the U.S. national anthem before the match Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Patrick Omameh of the Jacksonville Jaguars kneels during the U.S. national anthem before the match Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Sep 24, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Oakland Raiders players sit on the bench during the national anthem prior to their game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder stands with cornerback Josh Norman (24) and cornerback Bashaud Breeland (26) and safety D.J. Swearinger (36) during the playing of the national anthem before the game between the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Oakland Raiders players sit on the bench during the national anthem prior to their game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Carson, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Marcus Peters (22) protests next to running back Charcandrick West (35) and defensive tackle Roy Miller (98) during the National Anthem prior to the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Lance Kendricks (84) and tight end Martellus Bennett (80) sit on the bench during the national anthem prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Recording artist Meghan Linsey kneels after singing the national anthem before the game between the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
September 24, 2017; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets players lock arms during the national anthem before the game against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan links arms with players during the national anthems before the match Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 24: Members of the Chicago Bears stand arm-in-arm during the National Anthem before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Soldier Field on September 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Justin Houston #50 of the Kansas City Chiefs is seen taking a knee during the National Anthem before the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at the StubHub Center on September 24, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
NFL Football - Jacksonville Jaguars vs Baltimore Ravens - NFL International Series - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - September 24, 2017 General view during the national anthems before the match Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers
At the start of the game protestors take a knee in support of the movement started by NFL player Colin Kaepernick, outside Lincoln Financial Field, in South Philadelphia, PA, on September 24, 2017. Similar protest are staged around the nation after US President Donald Trump named Kaepernick a Son of A Bitch at a recent rally. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 25: Strong safety Tyvon Branch #27 of the Arizona Cardinals links arms with staff and players during the National Anthem before the start of the NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 25, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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What are the players seeking from the president?

Understanding. So much of the whirlwind about the protests revolved around the idea that they were somehow “unpatriotic,” and Trump himself was the largest force behind that whirlwind. But the players took pains to break down exactly what they are seeking.

Without explicitly saying so, the players noted the real reason behind the protests: to question a system they see as stacked unfairly against them. “As Americans, it is our constitutional right to question injustices when they occur, and we see them daily: police brutality, unnecessary incarceration, excessive criminal sentencing, residential segregation and educational inequality.”

The players further noted that their status as “millionaire athletes” (protest opponents often add “spoiled” to that description) has nothing to do with what they’re seeking: “Our being professional athletes has nothing to do with our commitment to fighting injustice. 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.”

How could pardons help?

President Trump could help,” the players wrote. “He could use his powers, including the clemency power, to make a real dent in the federal prison population.”

Pardons, the players noted, could commute the sentences of nonviolent offenders and elderly, low-risk prisoners. Elderly prisoners will make up 28 percent of the federal prison population by next year, but the Bureau of Prisons approved only 6 percent of about 5,400 “compassionate release” applications.

Plus, the players note, a significant percentage of prisoners are drug offenders rather than violent criminals. “Of the roughly 185,000 people locked up in federal prisons, about 79,000 are there for drug offenses of some kind,” they wrote, “and 13.5 percent of them have sentences of 20 years or more.”

However, the players point out that a couple quick pardons won’t alter the systemwide inequality that led to this point. “[A] handful of pardons will not address the sort of systemic injustice that N.F.L. players have been protesting,” they wrote. “These are problems that our government has created, many of which occur at the local level. If President Trump thinks he can end these injustices if we deliver him a few names, he hasn’t been listening to us.”

Related: Athletes and teams Trump has hosted at the White House: 

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Athletes and teams Trump has hosted at the White House
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Athletes and teams Trump has hosted at the White House
NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. presents a NASCAR helmet to U.S. President Donald Trump as the president welcomes Truex and his team to the White House in Washington, U.S., May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 19: U.S. President Donald Trump (C) holds up a customized jersey presented to him by 2017 Super Bowl Champions the New England Patriots during their visit to the White House in Washington, United States on April 19, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01: U.S. President Donald Trump is presented with a jersey by team captain Ahmad Bradshaw (R) during an event with the Army Black Knights football team from the U.S. Military Academy May 1, 2018 in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted the 2017 Commander in Chief's Trophy champion to honor their victory. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with the Houston Astros, the 2017 World Series Champions, in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: President Donald Trump holds a Chicago Cubs jersey as he meets with members of the 2016 World Series Champions Chicago Cubs in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant holds a '45' sign. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - (L-R) With Penguins' coach Mike Sullivan, and co owners Ronald Burkle and Mario Lemieux behind, President Donald Trump honors the Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC Tuesday October 10, 2017. The Stanley Cup Trophy is in the foreground. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: U.S. President Donald Trump hosts Team USA at the North Portico of the White House April 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted the team to celebrate their victories in the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: U.S. President Donald Trump hosts Team USA at the North Portico of the White House April 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted the team to celebrate their victories in the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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What happens now?

That’s up to the president. Certainly, the ball is back in his hands. And if he wants to demonstrate that this was a genuine, good-faith offer, and not merely a tossed-off line forgotten shortly afterward, he’ll take a look at the names the players recommend.

The other alternative, of course, is that the president will be swayed by the opinions of much his populist base and not meet the players halfway, since a significant portion of the president’s base does not support protesting during the anthem for any reason. If the president listens to that segment of his base, it won’t matter how many fact- or emotion-based arguments the players make.

Regardless, we now have, for the moment, two steps forward in this debate, which is two more than we had for most of last season.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
 

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