President Trump made an offer to protesting NFL players, that if they pass along cases of people they felt were victims of the criminal-justice system, he would consider pardons. The Seahawks' Doug Baldwin and other players responded via a New York Times op-ed.
Any time you tackle a subject such as this, it’s imperative to take a breath before writing. But after spending the past seven days inhaling, I think I’m comfortable with this 900-word exhalation.
A few weeks ago, President Trump made a rather astonishing offer to protesting NFL players. He told them that if they pass along cases of people they felt were victims of the criminal-justice system, he would review them and consider pardons.
To think this proposal was anything but a PR move is probably (definitely?) naive. But considering Trump did commute the sentence of drug offender Alice Johnson after meeting with Kim Kardashian this month, it wasn’t something to ignore.
So last Thursday, the Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin, the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, the Saints’ Benjamin Watson, and the retired Anquan Boldin responded to the offer via a New York Times op-ed. And anyone presuming the piece would be an invective-laced middle finger to the President was instantly proven wrong.
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This was a well-intentioned, highly respectful plea that laid out a specific set of solutions. Only problem is … the solutions aren’t good.
Thinking that “a handful of pardons” wouldn’t change what they felt was a larger ill, the players didn’t offer individual cases up for review. Instead, they asked for a “blanket pardon” for non-violent drug offenders who, like Johnson, had already served long sentences.
They added that releasing non-violent drug offenders over age 60 whose convictions weren’t “recent” was “the morally right thing to do,” and that life sentences (or de facto life sentences) for non-violent drug offenders should no longer be handed out.
Superficially, this may seem reasonable or compassionate. But upon inspection, it seems ignorant and dangerous.
Would they be OK freeing kingpins who moved thousands of pounds of heroin and destroyed communities? How about “non-violent drug offenders” with extremely violent pasts?
Despite their good intentions, the players’ plan seems as misguided as it is unrealistic. Surely they could have gone about this differently, no?
That was one of the questions I had for California-based prosecutor Eric Siddall, who spoke on behalf of the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys. Two years ago, Siddall penned a piece entitled “The Myth of the Nonviolent Drug Offender,” in which he noted that “international cartels, terrorist organizations and criminal gangs thrive off narcotic sales” — and that violence is necessary for dealers to obtain territory.
In talking to me, he added that drug offenders are often murderers whose gangs intimidated eyewitnesses out of testifying, and that trafficking charges are the only ones that will stick.
“These aren’t people who just happen to be carrying drugs while trying to make ends meet or pay for their child’s diapers,” Siddall said. “(The players) are making an assumption that because someone is involved with drugs, they’re non-violent. How do you think drugs are transported or sold?”
Interestingly enough, Siddall likes that the players are trying to effect change. He has seen his share of draconian sentences given to truly non-violent offenders during the heyday of the war on drugs.
He also thinks the players are showing integrity in not asking for specific pardons, arguing that granting clemency off a celebrity’s recommendation makes a mockery of the criminal-justice system. Still, Siddall says blanket requests won’t cut it — you have to review these cases individually.
L.A.-based defense attorney Josh Ritter agrees. A prosecutor before going private, Ritter has locked up plenty of menaces who deserve every year of their multiple-decade-plus sentences. But since making the switch, he says he has defended drug offenders who are truly good people — people he’d feel comfortable sharing a drink with but are rotting in cells instead.
“A lot of these are good folks who made a mistake and got themselves into a mess,” Ritter said. “Now they’re really begging for their lives, but they themselves aren’t bad people.”
This is why Ritter would actually like to see the players give Trump names to review. He understands why they’d be reluctant to do so from a political perspective but thinks “calling him on his bluff” may get deserving people out of prison.
Is that something Trump could dangle over the NFL’s head for the rest of his presidency? Yes. But if you have an opportunity to free a non-violent person from an unjustly long sentence — if you have a chance to truly give someone his or her life back — might that dangling be worth it?
I have no idea what the right answer is. This is an unprecedented situation involving an unpredictable head of state. But I do think these questions are worth asking. Self-serving as Trump’s offer may be, he is giving players never-before-seen power if he’s sincere.
The Seahawks said Baldwin was not available for an interview, so I didn’t have the chance to get his thoughts on any of this. And though I doubt he would have changed his stance on passing along pardon suggestions, I wonder if he would have considered ways to get more legitimately unjust cases reviewed — be it by the President, Department of Justice or any other relevant entity.
What I’m sure of is that he and his co-authors care deeply about this issue. I’m equally sure that the piece they published has major flaws.
Athletes become great not just due to talent, but because of their desire to improve. These four are on to something here, but they need to do better.