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3 days in Washington with 4 NFL players fighting for criminal justice reform

Four NFL Players — Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth, Malcolm Jenkins, and Johnson Bademosi — spent three days on Capitol Hill to see what they could change.

Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, Donte Stallworth and Johnson Bademosi sit for a congressional forum on March 31, 2017
Rep. Donald Payne’s (D-NJ.) office

WASHINGTON — Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA.) waltzes into a room of lawmakers and assistants, patiently waiting for current and former NFL players Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth, Malcolm Jenkins, and Johnson Bademosi. He seems unbothered that they are late.

“Morning,” Kilmer says. “This should be a good day.”

It’s 8 a.m., and the football quartet is scheduled to meet in the Rayburn House Office Building on a Tuesday to start a three-day tour of Washington, urging dozens of legislators and groups to hear their concerns.

The players are here to advocate for criminal justice reform. They'll see the inner workings of Congress firsthand as they try to learn what role, if any, professional football players can have in enacting change at the federal level.

Their first planned stop is the Bipartisan Working Group, which usually holds a weekly breakfast among nearly 30 Democrats and Republicans to find common ground on current issues. It’s a battleground over coffee and donuts that doesn’t often lead to compromise.

“We aren’t singing ‘Kumbaya’ around a table,” Kilmer said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can make some progress and identify things we can agree on.”

Before they can attend breakfast, however, the players have to find parking. Staffers wielding cellphones hurry to different exits for their arrival. When the players finally enter Congress — Jenkins in a custom bowtie, Boldin’s broad shoulders squeezing into a suit jacket, Bademosi grinning, Stallworth shuffling in last — they hurry into the room to a red roundtable to explain why they belong in these halls and the urgency of the issues that brought them.

Bademosi spent time before his professional career interning at a lobbying firm in Washington. The District is his home. Recently, he found himself anxious, angry, and upset at the continued deaths of unarmed black men in America at the hands of police. He and some teammates wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during a pregame warm-up in 2014.

“The league and the fans need to see us as men, with our own opinions and the freedom to express them,” Bademosi wrote in an op-ed in 2014.

Stallworth has been in Washington for years. He used to write on politics for the Huffington Post and jumped at a chance to tour Congress. Stallworth believes in the power of sports and the opportunity for athletes to leverage their celebrity for substantive change.

“There’s nothing in life that brings about more bipartisanship than sports,” he said.

Jenkins has been a stalwart supporter of police-community relations reform in Philadelphia in the last year, going on ride-alongs with officers, visiting Pennsylvania prisons, and sitting down with Philadelphia’s police chief. He wants to break the barrier between athletes and politics.

“There are a lot of guys that have concerns about what’s going on in their communities and across the nation that are looking for ways to get involved and aren’t sure what to do,” Jenkins said. “That’s what me and Anquan have been doing. We’ve been trying to blaze that trail for them to follow along.”

Boldin is a quiet protester in the NFL who has started group chats for nearly 80 players itching to do something about policing. He has been to Congress to advocate on different issues. He tells the table about the night his cousin, Corey Jones, was gunned down by a plainclothes officer after his car broke down in 2015.

“I wish I could tell you Corey’s story was unique,” Boldin said. “I wish I could tell you that now, over a year later, we know exactly what happened and that the issue was resolved. I wish I could tell you Corey didn’t die in the first place.

“And I wish I wasn’t here at all talking about my dead cousin.”

Lawmakers gave them suggestions on how to enact change. Some proposed that the players act as stewards between cops and communities. Legislators called for more action at the local level. Criminal justice reform — especially under a White House administration that has been loath to acknowledge police-community issues in the United States — is tricky; something the players said they understood better after visiting the Hill.

Minnesota Vikings v Philadelphia Eagles
Malcolm Jenkins #27 is shown during the national anthem before taking on the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field on October 23, 2016
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As the conversation fades, the breakfast morphs into a photo-op.

“I grew up watching you, man,” one staffer says to Jenkins. “I was a huge Buckeye fan. I grew up outside of Columbus, and those were my favorite years watching that team. Thanks so much for coming here. Hey, you mind grabbing a picture?”

“So who did you play for?” Susan Brooks (R-IN) asks Stallworth.

“This was great,” one staffer says to a player. “I think there’s some good things that came up about cops, and my boss is definitely interested in that!”

“All right, we gotta run!” Brooks says. “We gotta fund the government.”

“Not a big task, right?” Bademosi responds.

When Boldin and others have come to the Hill in the past, they didn’t always feel like they were being taken seriously. The first time Boldin ever gave testimony here, a staffer asked one of his handlers if Boldin knew how to read. Moments like those have made players wonder what stake they have in Washington.

Congress is accustomed to meet-and-greets with different groups about various concerns. There’s something different on the calendar every day. Monday could be about oil. Friday may address guns.

Regardless, Stallworth said they have no choice but to cherish the moment.

“This is one of the biggest things we can do: coming here, meeting with members of Congress on the Hill and seeing the whole process,” Stallworth said.

NFL players are starting to become part of the modern political routine. This is the second time players have come to Congress for their cause since November. Boldin has stumped for members running for political posts. Colin Kaepernick has become the ire of NFL owners and the nation’s president. Martellus Bennett and others said they won’t go to the White House to celebrate a Super Bowl victory. Jon Runyan held a seat in Congress as recently as 2015.

As the room begins to empty, Boldin sits down for an interview in front of a camera with lights beaming off his head. It’s a different field for the veteran receiver. He chooses his words as carefully as possible.

There is a realization here about how this process works as Boldin is peppered with questions about criminal justice. Thirty-minute afternoon chats, like these, with certain lawmakers don’t necessarily yield results. Instead, the meetings can turn into lessons on public relations and optics.

Fresh from his first conversation of the day, one thing did stand out: Boldin is beginning to learn Washington’s snail-paced definition of progress.

“For us, this started during the season,” he says. Then he paused to take stock of the next words he’d say. “We know it takes a long time to get things done here in Washington.”

Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth, Malcolm Jenkins and Johnson Bademosi sit with Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) in an afternoon meeting about criminal justice reform.
Congressman Scott Peters’ office

Congressmen tried to educate players throughout the week about different ways to dive into criminal justice reform. The legislators called for more funding to police-community initiatives, which could be gutted as President Donald Trump takes aim at sanctuary cities.

“A lot of it gets back to making sure there’s funding available in the cities,” Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), a co-chair of the BPWG, said last week after meeting with the players. “As we talked, a lot of this is about the cities. It’s not as much about the federal government.”

Another way toward reform is backing bipartisan legislation, which all of the players said was something they’d consider. Publicly advocating for bills is a win for both sides of this conversation.

Currently in Congress, there’s the Fair Chance Act — backed by both parties in the Senate and House — seeking to ban the federal government from requesting criminal history from applicants until the end of the hiring process. Another bill, the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, incentivizes local police outfits to adopt performance-based standards ensuring job misconduct is minimized through more training, oversight, and protocol.

Players don’t have control over these bills, but they can use their platforms to promote legislation and, ideally, spur lawmakers into action, even at the state and local level.

“The system is flawed,” Jenkins said. “Our communities need trust and support, and we need to provide them with preventative and advancement resources to stop the cycle.”

As a Hail Mary pitch, some staffers and members told players they’d attempt to secure a future audience with Trump and his administration.

Players voiced concerns over the week about how the administration is a hurdle to their efforts — a White House that’s so pro-police in its policy platforms, that everyone from social justice organizations like Black Lives Matter to police chiefs nationwide have questioned the changing atmosphere around justice.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Kilmer, the representative from Washington, said of Trump’s administration. “But by and large, these problems get solved on the ground in our communities, not in big buildings in Washington, D.C.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) chats with Lions cornerback Johnson Bademosi during a forum on criminal justice reform and policing in March
Congressman Elijah Cummings’ office

Bademosi, the Lions corner, said before going to Congress that he wasn’t sure if Congress could be a strong ally against the administration.

“Oftentimes, there might be a bill or piece of legislation that’s going through committee and people are rallying around it, but because of the way things work, because terms are only two years and the second year people are trying to get re-elected, you don’t make progress on things,” he said.

Nobody has an answer for how players can push through Congress’ inefficiencies. Tom Perez, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee who met with players, said that nothing will get done if the players and American people don’t “swing the bat on these issues.”

He suggested having a Congressional and Executive branch strategy because on bipartisan matters, there’s “not a heck of a lot” getting done.

“The Trump administration is very unpredictable to say the least,” Perez said. “It’s hard for me to give [the players] any suggestions with any confidence about what [Trump] will do because it’s been such a chaos administration.”

The magnitude of that uncertainty hasn’t left the players discouraged. NFL players (and public figures like them) have a clear utility to Congress. Their celebrity, combined with their connection to communities, has the ability to bridge Washington to the rest of America — and as Jenkins mentioned, to Trump.

One of the players’ biggest supporters, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), backed their efforts when he met them with Perez at the DNC headquarters in the Southeast corridor of the District.

“You folks oughta think about running for office!” Ellison said. Perez agreed. He even suggested taking the cohort on a country-wide speaking tour. He pondered aloud the power of a grassroots initiative with athletes as political pushers of progress, going state by state as the faces of Democratic criminal justice reform.

“Athletes are citizens, too. They have the unique ability to give a megaphone to important issues,” Perez said. “I’d encourage them to do this. Their passion was palpable in these meetings. They could bring a lot to the table.”

Johnson Bademosi waiting for a handshake from Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the “Dean of Congress” prior to a forum on criminal justice reform and policing in Congress, March. 30, 2017.
Rep. Elijah Cummings’ (D-Md.) office

On Thursday, the players trek back to Capitol Hill for their biggest, most public moment of the week. They stand outside a large door holding in a room made for hearings. The four, accompanied by lauded John Jay College criminal justice professor Phillip Goff, are about to enter a forum on their firsthand experiences and building trust between communities and police.

The event wasn’t as fruitful as many had hoped. The chamber stayed empty for most of the morning. The group’s most publicized event wasn’t as widely attended, in part, because many members were voting at the same time the forum started.

The four athletes sat at a table and addressed no more than four congressmen at any time about their concerns, and always black congressmen. No white lawmakers or Republicans attended. The forum was black people talking to black people about issues plaguing, in large part, black people.

Despite the poor turnout, there were moments in this space that made you believe these players belonged in Washington. The congressmen who did attend made sure the players knew.

“I think back to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. People have taken to the streets to proclaim Black Lives Matter, to seek justice for those who have died. Today, we are joined by men of the National Football League. What an honor,” Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said.

“Let me thank you all for stepping off the field and stepping back into the real life you all lived before you made it to the NFL and before you played in college,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) said. “To get out of your comfort zone, but to actually give back and fight for issues that are critical, we don’t see it enough.”

“What you’re doing today is crucial,” Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) said. “Who better than you to begin to talk about how African American men are treated, how they begin to be treated as boys, how the respect for them doesn’t exist [from the beginning of their lives] and then how the criminal justice system [treats them].”

When the players spoke, they addressed reform from several angles. They said that they’re not “anti-police” and that it’s possible to be both pro-police and pro-black.

Jenkins said there’s a need to humanize both sides of the issue and that the men and women who spend their lives protecting others also have the capacity to make mistakes.

“We all agree we need our law enforcement. They have tough jobs. But accountability is not the same as indictment,” Jenkins said.

Boldin called for better development of community-police relations and more federal hearings on criminal justice reform. He wants to see Congress use the extent of its power to ensure that the wrong people aren’t becoming officers and that they are vetted the same way athletes are.

“In the NFL we do a great job of screening guys because we only want the best in the league,” Boldin said. “If you’re not the best, you’re not afforded the opportunity to wear the shield. I think it should be the same way in the police department. I think we can all agree that everybody that’s a police [officer] doesn’t deserve to be.”

Many of the black legislators personally know the cost of waiting for progress and advocating for justice.

Jackson-Lee has spent months asking for justice for Sandra Bland, who was pulled from her car after a traffic exchange, jailed, and found hung in her cell in 2015. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) stood between a phalanx of officers and testy protesters the same year after Freddie Gray was arrested for having a switchblade. Gray was thrown into a police van and had his spine broken and died in police custody.

They can appreciate what the players are attempting to do. As the members speak, they reiterate that progress can be slow but still monumental.

“Your efforts are significant and will affect generations to come,” Cummings said. “Kids you don’t even know, they’ll see this on C-SPAN. You don’t even know it. You’ll never meet them. But you will change their lives.”

“The NFL’s stature has just shot through the roof,” Jackson-Lee said. “Not because of your promise on the field, but because you are here, in the United States Congress and are associated with the NFL. I hope they are listening and looking. I hope they are seeing the value of what you are now saying.”

And soon, the players are whisked away. Boldin, Bademosi, Stallworth, and Jenkins escape through a side door in a building that never expected them, passing black-and-white pictures of black and brown people protesting during the Civil Rights Era, all advocating for real change.