For months, President Donald Trump has waged an all-out offensive against the NFL, arguing that football players who kneel in protest during the national anthem are disrespectful and unpatriotic.
Trump regularly accuses the players — who have engaged in a two-season protest against racial injustice — of insulting the flag, the military, and America itself.
But the president’s tone changed slightly last week when he told reporters on June 8 that he wanted to work with those same NFL players, albeit on one issue: presidential pardons.
“I am 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. “I’m going to take a look at those applications. And if I find, and my committee finds that they are unfairly treated, then we will pardon them or at least let them out (of prison).”
It was a surprising departure from his normal rhetoric about the NFL players’ protests. It was also incredibly short-lived. On Friday, one week later, the president commented on the protests again, saying that no NFL players had offered pardon suggestions — and that he didn’t think they were protesting for a real cause.
”They’re saying people are aggrieved. Okay. Let me know about it. I’ll look at it. If they’re aggrieved, I’ll pardon them. I’ll get them out,” Trump said during an impromptu interview with Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy. “Maybe they’ve called the staff. But I have not personally heard from one. Because I don’t know if it’s a real issue. I don’t think it’s a real issue.”
"I told the @NFL players... let me know about it, I'll look at it. If they're aggrieved, I will pardon them. I'll get them out."— Fox News (@FoxNews) June 15, 2018
WATCH: Steve Doocy's full interview with President @realDonaldTrump on Fox and Friends - Part 3. pic.twitter.com/ZhCveoyKQH
But his recent comments reveal his lack of comprehension about the scope of what the players want to change.
Last October, a group of players wrote a CNN op-ed explaining that they wanted to “continue to shed light on the racial disparities within our criminal justice system,” particularly when it comes to issues like cash bail. One month before that, Eric Reid, a former San Francisco 49ers player who knelt alongside Colin Kaepernick, wrote in the New York Times that police violence against black men and women also factored into his decision to protest.
In short, the NFL players who kneel are asking for America to address systemic disparities affecting people of color — something that presidential pardons alone cannot come close to fixing.
Trump has been really into pardons lately
In recent weeks, Trump has been heavily focused on issuing presidential pardons.
He’s pardoned political allies and the deceased boxer Jack Johnson, and considered pardoning celebrities like Martha Stewart. (Trump also mused about pardoning Muhammad Ali, who actually doesn’t need it.)
The president also commuted the sentence of Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old black woman sentenced to life in prison in the 1990s for drug trafficking, after Kim Kardashian West lobbied for her release.
On one hand, Trump may be so interested in pardons because they are one of the few areas where he can use his presidential powers without interference. And some observers have speculated that Trump is trying to wield his pardoning powers to boost his approval among African Americans. Trump apparently said as much while meeting with Kardashian, telling her that she and her husband Kanye West, who supports Trump, were helping him with black voters.
It’s unlikely that this is the case. An April poll that showed Trump’s approval rating had increased among some African Americans was criticized because the sample used in the poll was too small to mean anything.
But the president seems to see some connection there — and his offer to pardon people recommended to him by the NFL players protesting racial injustice shows it.
However, he seems to be missing the larger point. In the nearly two years since the protests started, players have repeatedly said that they are protesting a range of injustices that disproportionately affect African Americans, including police violence, other disparities in the justice system, and systemic racism. And while pardons are undoubtedly life-changing to those lucky enough to receive them, the systemic issues highlighted by the NFL protests can’t be completely resolved by something as limited as a presidential pardon.
Some players say they are willing to work with Trump on the issue. “We do want to engage on the recent pardons. But I think, for us, just pardoning certain people, I don’t think would be wise,” retired NFL player Anquan Boldin told ThinkProgress before a recent NFL Players Coalition forum on criminal justice reform.
“I think for us as NFL players, if we just gave him a list of names, it would kind of reinforce the current system — people who know people, people who have money, usually get the better end of the stick when it comes to our criminal justice system, which we know is broken,” he added.
Players have regularly argued that they want to see deeper change in America’s justice system. Last week, Malcolm Jenkins, a safety for the Super Bowl–winning Philadelphia Eagles, was repeatedly asked by reporters about Trump disinviting the team from the White House. Instead of answering their questions, Jenkins used a series of posters to outline the issues NFL players are trying to call attention to.
“I’m tired of the narrative being about the anthem, about the White House or whatever,” Jenkins later told ESPN. “The reason that we’re doing any of this is because we have these huge disparities in our criminal justice system; we have this issue of mass incarceration; we have issues of police brutality; our children and access to education and economic advancement is nonexistent in communities of color. And these things are systemic; there are ways that we can change them.”
These are policy concerns, something that the Trump administration doesn’t seem all that interested in addressing. Instead, Trump has called for a more punitive justice system and suggested that drug dealers face the death penalty. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has reduced federal oversight of police departments, led the push for a revitalized war on drugs, and incorrectly argued that crime is increasing due to efforts to reduce prison sentences.
So while issuing a presidential pardon to people who have been wrongly imprisoned or given unnecessarily harsh sentences for drug-related crimes isn’t a bad thing to do, it doesn’t come close to addressing the issue of systemic racial injustice. And it’s really baffling that Trump would assume it could.