The official National Football League NFL logo painted on turf. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

NFL uses its muscle to endorse criminal justice legislation

The National Football League, still in political crosshairs over whether players should take a knee during the national anthem, is throwing its weight behind another cause in Washington’s debate over racial inequality: Criminal-justice reform.

The NFL’s spokesman said on Monday that the league has decided to endorse a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, eliminate “three-strike” provisions that require life sentences and give judges more latitude to reduce sentences for certain low-level crimes.

“We felt that this was an issue over the last months, as we have continued to work with our players on issues of equality and on issues of criminal-justice reform, that was surfaced for us, and we thought it was appropriate to lend our support to it,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Monday during a conference call with reporters.

The owners appear to be seeking middle ground between football players and their critics during a heated national debate over the growing phenomenon of players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. It is not clear what effect the NFL’s effort will have on that debate – or on President Donald Trump, who has fueled much of the vitriol against kneeling players through his personal and official Twitter accounts.

Trump has accused specific players of insulting the American flag and the service of troops and calling their demonstration “disgraceful.” Several veterans have come forward to defend the players, but public opinion on the subject is divided.

Trump has gone after owners as well, suggesting in a Fox News interview that they are “afraid of their players” and unwilling to discipline those who have taken a knee. He has called for a general boycott of the NFL “until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country,” as well as for changing the tax law to rescind the NFL’s tax breaks if the protests continue. When Vice President Mike Pence went to an Indianapolis Colts game earlier this month, the president also directed him to walk out of the game if any players knelt, which he did.

The subject of whether the NFL should require players to stand during the playing of the national anthem is expected to come up for debate at a meeting this week of owners, who are caught between the president’s tweets and players determined to continue their demonstrations.

On Capitol Hill, spokesmen for the two main sponsors of the criminal-justice bill, Sens. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., declined to comment about the timing of the NFL’s endorsement or whether it was intended to quell the heated debate over the players’ continued protests. Both said they welcomed the NFL’s support.

But a spokesman for Grassley added that the NFL had not coordinated with the bill’s congressional sponsors in advance of its decision. In the meantime, no other sports league has signed on. A spokesman for the NFL Players Association did not immediately return a call for comment about whether the football players’ union would also endorse the bill.

In Congress, it is not clear whether the NFL’s endorsement will help the bill’s chances of passing. The legislation has already earned the support of some influential groups from across the political spectrum, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Charles Koch Institute and Americans for Tax Reform.

In addition, the Grassley-Durbin bill is the result of a five-year, bipartisan effort. Last year, the duo released almost identical legislation backed by 37 co-sponsors, including 17 Republicans.

Despite that, sponsors have struggled in years past to secure a full Senate vote for the bill, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refusing to bring it to the floor.

One of the key senators angling against the measure was then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – now Trump’s attorney general.

Although the Trump administration has not taken a position on the bill, the legislation directly challenges Sessions’ new policy on sentencing, which he laid out in a memo to federal prosecutors earlier this year. In that memo, Sessions instructed them to seek charges “that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences” – leading many to interpret the directive as the start of a new war on drugs. Sessions has argued that his order was meant to focus on hardened criminals; nonetheless, the policy is a course change from the Obama administration’s effort to avoid pursuing charges that would result in long prison sentences for certain low-level crimes.

Bill sponsors said they have been speaking periodically with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, not Sessions, about the legislation.

The Washington Post’s Rick Maese contributed to this report.