AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For the past two seasons, NFL players have been kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. And President Trump has used some harsh language against those players.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, get that son of a bitch off the field right now? Out. He's fired. He's fired.
CORNISH: But earlier this month, the president said he would be open to hearing recommendations from NFL players about people who they thought had been treated unfairly by the system so that he could consider pardoning them. Some of those players responded with an op-ed in The New York Times today, saying that a handful of pardons will not address systemic injustices that they've been protesting.
Joining us to talk more about this is Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team. Hey there, Gene. Welcome to the studio.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: How did we get to this point?
DEMBY: So the backstory here is that - you might remember that Kim Kardashian went to the White House earlier this month to speak to President Trump to ask for a pardon for Alice Johnson. Alice Johnson was convicted of a first-time, nonviolent drug offense in 1996, and she was sentenced to life in prison. And that meeting seemed to work because President Trump commuted Alice Johnson's sentence. After that meeting, President Trump turned to NFL players and asked for the names of other people like Alice Johnson who might be pardoned.
CORNISH: Which brings us to this op-ed in The New York Times. Did they actually offer up any names?
DEMBY: They did not suggest names. The players who signed the op-ed - that was Doug Baldwin, Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins and Benjamin Watson - they pointed out that there are lots of people in federal prisons just like Alice Johnson. And they said, quote, "imagine how many more Alice Johnsons the president could pardon if he treated the issue like the systemic problem that it is rather than asking professional football players for a few cases."
CORNISH: So when they talk about systemic problems, what areas of the justice system are they talking about?
DEMBY: They were talking mostly about drug offenses, people like Alice Johnson. And they called for the president to issue a blanket pardon for people in similar situations. They pointed out that nearly half of the people in federal prison are there for drug offenses. A significant number of those are serving sentences of 20 years or more for those drug offenses. They also said that more than a quarter of the people in federal prisons are elderly. And the players recommended that the president order the release of any drug offender over the age of 60 who was not recently convicted.
CORNISH: This is an interesting moment because here you have a president who has been antagonistic - right? - towards the NFL players...
CORNISH: ...Who were involved in these protests, and at the same time, like, asking for suggestions. I mean, was that just, like, rhetorical question?
DEMBY: It's a really good question. And we should remember that Trump going after NFL protests plays really well with his base, right? A poll from last month found that 60 percent of white Americans and 85 percent of Republicans think that kneeling during the national anthem is inappropriate. And that's complicated things for the NFL. The TV audience for the NFL is overwhelmingly white. It skews right of center politically. And so the NFL has instituted new guidelines, probably not coincidentally. And those guidelines say that teams will be fined if their players kneel. So it seems like this conversation is entering a new phase with players needing to find new channels to talk about the injustices they see.
CORNISH: Yeah, definitely. We reported yesterday about players from the New England Patriots who were asking questions of candidates of - in a local district attorney's race in Boston about how they would make the criminal justice system more fair. And, you know, it was a surprise.
DEMBY: Yeah, it is. And what's interesting is that these conversations - because they're happening now, because they're going to have to happen away from the field and away from the anthem and away from the flag, they won't be sort of bogged down in conversations around patriotism and the military. In a way, an op-ed like this gives the players a chance to refocus the conversation on criminal justice reform.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Gene Demby. Gene, thanks so much.
DEMBY: Thank you so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.