WASHINGTON -- Eagles Safety Malcolm Jenkins traded his shoulder pads for a notepad Thursday as he and three other NFL players met with members of Congress to urge them to make the criminal justice system more fair and to focus on improving the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities.
For some of them, the issue was personal.
Johnson Bademosi, a Lions defensive back originally from Maryland, said that when he was young his father was convicted of a non-violent drug offense. An immigrant, his father was deported to Nigeria and has never returned to the United States, Bademosi said after meeting with Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.).
Anquan Boldin, a wide receiver who also came to meet with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, told of a cousin who was shot and killed by a plain clothes police officer in 2015 after his SUV broke down on a highway. The fourth member of the group, retired wide receiver Donte Stallworth, served 24 days in prison in 2009 after killing a man while driving drunk.
Along with Jenkins, they all said they hoped to use their experiences and their platforms as athletes to make the issue a priority during a busy Congressional session.
“We’re here to use our leverage, our voices, to make sure that our families, our communities, our kids are a priority to the people here on Capitol Hill, to this administration, to the rest of our nation,” Jenkins told seven Democratic members of Congress during a public forum.
He said he got involved in the issue after seeing the widely-publicized incidents involving police and minorities last year. He met with the Philadelphia police commissioner and community groups, joined protests during the national anthem at Eagles games -- holding his fist aloft -- and recently visited a state prison in Graterford, Pa.
He argued that the current criminal system is costing too much money, due to the number of people sentenced to prison, and “creates doubt and distrust” between police and the communities they work in.
Stallworth, Bademosi and Jenkins, originally from Piscataway, in Central New Jersey, later met with Booker, a vocal champion of criminal justice reform and part of a bipartisan coalition that agreed to a reform bill in 2015, but saw it stall.
It was the culmination of three days of meetings on Capitol Hill with members of both parties.
Booker said the athletes can reach people who tune out politicians, and can bridge typical divides. Red or blue, he argued, every county has rabid football fans.
“I can go on CNN, Fox, MSNBC all I want. They’re reaching people that are not engaged or even sort of focusing in on what’s happening in politics,” Booker said in his office. “There are Democrats and Republicans who love every team just as passionately.”
Sitting next to him, Bademosi said, “this issue is personal to a lot of us.”
“People who look like us, who are the same as us, listen to the same music, do the same things, are killed in the street. I don’t want to speak for everybody, but that makes me sad, that makes me angry … we’re tired of just putting a fist up to getting on a knee and participating in symbols - we need action.”
Last year, criminal justice reform was seen as one of the few hopes for big, bipartisan legislation. Key figures in both parties embraced the idea.
Democrats have sought to ease harsh sentences and laws that they say trail people long after they serve their time. Republicans and some conservative groups, notably the billionaire donors the Koch brothers, see the system as inefficient and too expensive, and many believe it deprives people of second chances.
But the prospects for major change are unclear under a Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a fierce opponent of criminal justice reform when he was in the Senate.
Booker said he was hopeful that more moderate voices in the administration, including Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, might be more receptive. (Kushner’s father, Charles, went to prison on tax evasion and witness tampering charges).
The NFL players said they were encouraged by meetings with Republicans, who they said were largely on board with the idea of reforms, though they acknowledged that the GOP has other priorities for now, including an overhaul of the tax code.
“It’s why we’re here: to try to figure out how we can help push it through when the time comes when we get to that point on the list of priorities,” Jenkins said.