A tearful Alice Marie Johnson hugged her family Thursday after walking out of prison as a free woman for the first time in 21 years. Her freedom came thanks to a commuted sentence from President Donald Trump at the behest of Kim Kardashian West.
Trump responded a day later by asking NFL players for a list of other incarcerated people they feel deserve to be pardoned — much like he did for the late legendary black boxer Jack Johnson on May 24 after lobbying efforts from Sylvester Stallone, retired heavyweight champion Lenox Lewis, and reigning WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.
The scenario presents a conundrum for some of pro football’s most socially conscious athletes, according to activist and journalist Shaun King, a confidant of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who, thanks largely to Trump, have jeopardized their careers by kneeling during their teams’ pre-game national anthem performances.
The players’ protests were, in part, to stand up for people just like Alice Marie Johnson, people Trump has the power, and possibly even the will, to give a second chance at life.
“I spoke to several [NFL] players today,” King said in a phone interview with Mic Friday night. “None of them respect Trump. You don’t have to respect him to be a part of this process. Real people are counting on us. We don’t have the luxury of only caring about this issue when Democrats are in power. Lives are at stake right now.”
King, a staunch critic of Trump, said he’s spent all week fielding calls from the families of other people in prison who’ve pleaded with him to help do for their loved ones what Kardashian West did for Alice Marie Johnson.
On Friday, King advised some of the NFL players he counsels — whom he declined to name — to be willing to negotiate and possibly meet with Trump in exchange for guaranteed pardons and criminal justice policy reforms.
“In effect, this is a hostage negotiation,” King said. “NFL players have been supremely disrespected by [Trump]. Yet, he has the power to make a difference on issues that matter. I don’t trust Trump, but a list [of potential pardons] should absolutely be delivered to him... This is a perilous path. Trump will use all of us for political props. He’s a user at heart. However, we have to sincerely consider whether or not being used by Trump is worth getting people pardoned.”
There is, of course, a long history of Republican presidents disingenuously using black athletes and other black celebrities as political props. There’s also a timeline of prominent black leaders working with racist presidents for the advancement of social justice causes.
In the 1960s, both Major League Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain took heat from black America for supporting Richard Nixon, the president accused of masterminding the war on drugs to neutralize the black community. Nixon’s FBI director J. Edgar Hoover also surveilled, targeted, and locked up leaders of black activist groups like the Black Panther Party.
In recent years, black athletes like NFL retirees Ray Lewis and Jim Brown have been characterized as props in Trump photo-ops, along with other black celebrities like Kanye West and Steve Harvey after meeting with Trump and posing for pictures inside his former Trump Tower home in Manhattan.
Harvard historian Leah Wright Rigueur said that each individual NFL player that’s considering working with the president on pardons needs to do what feels right to them.
“It’s a personal decision,” Rigueur said over the phone on Friday. “If Kaepernick decided tomorrow that he’s going to take Trump up on his offer, we should respect his right to do that, but he should also be aware enough to not allow himself to be used as a prop. It’s about the overall systemic problems and the solutions.”
Since becoming president, many of Trump’s policies have exacerbated issues that negatively affect black America. He’s endorsed police brutality. His justice department has promised to pull back on consent decrees that hold corrupt police departments accountable, while reversing Obama’s plan to phase out private prisons.
For these reasons, Rigeur said she doesn’t think a few pardons will be enough to repair Trump’s poor reputation with African-Americans.
“While most people appreciate the pardons and see them generally as a good thing,” she continued, “they also see the pardons as Trump ‘playing politics.’ Pardoning individuals and photo ops don’t change the structural or institutional problems of mass incarceration; neither does a handful of pardons excuse Trump’s overall behavior and attitude and hostility to civil rights issues.”
King notes that Obama declined to pardon both Alice Marie Johnson and Jack Johnson, adding that Democrats should “absolutely be concerned” about Trump’s apparent black outreach.
“Obama always held back on stuff like this,” King said. “He shouldn’t have. He also assumed Clinton would be President.”