It was a typical morning in Magistrate Court in New Orleans: Twelve defendants were making their first appearances on recent arrests, 10 of them black and all of them shackled.
But there was one big difference this Tuesday: National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell shared a hard wooden bench with a worried grandfather.
Saints players Benjamin Watson and Demario Davis watched as Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell set $1,500 bail for a disabled man accused of cocaine possession.
Afterward, one observer said it was impossible to hear the clink of the defendants' metal shackles without thinking of slavery. Goodell agreed.
“I was just overwhelmed with sadness,” Watson said. “Their lives are never going to be the same, whether they’re guilty or innocent.”
The indelible image of a powerful sports executive mixing with the poor and desperate came courtesy of the Players Coalition. NFL players created the social justice organization last year in the wake of protests by Colin Kaepernick and other players who refused to stand during the national anthem in response to police killings of black people.
The Players Coalition organized a daylong symposium Tuesday on the criminal justice system at the Orleans Public Defenders office that was also attended by Saints owner Gayle Benson and defensive end Cam Jordan.
In May, the NFL agreed to spend nearly $90 million on a “social justice partnership” with the group. Observers said the league may have hoped it would tamp down on the game-day demonstrations.
The protest controversy is hardly over, as the uproar over Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn’s Nike policy proved this week. But Players Coalition members like Watson and Davis say they hope to use events like the symposium to refocus the attention the protests have generated onto concrete issues like bail reform.
Davis and and Watson penned an op-ed last week asking the media to look beyond the debate over the protests during the national anthem to the underlying issues that sparked them.
"Trying to make your country a better place is the most patriotic thing you can do," said Davis, a linebacker.
Tuesday's symposium was one of a series of similar events the Players Coalition has organized in Detroit, Philadelphia and New York City. The group has also hosted seven forums ahead of elections for district attorney in other cities.
“We’ve obviously, over the last couple of years, had a huge conflict,” said Watson, a tight end. “But when you are able to deal with that conflict in a constructive manner, then you get meetings like this.”
For eight hours, Goodell listened attentively — sometimes interjecting questions — as defense attorneys and formerly incarcerated people spoke. In the day’s first session, Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton explained the plethora of bail fees and court costs that defendants pay to help support the city's criminal justice system.
Federal judges recently declared that “user pays” system to be unconstitutional because the state judges who set fines and fees cannot be impartial when their own budget is at stake. After watching the bail hearings, Davis agreed.
“The judge didn’t let anybody off on no bail,” he said. “The judge has a conflict of interest, because he has to get the people in his office paid.”
As the commissioner and players lunched at Cafe Reconcile, speakers described the power of prosecutors, which a panel described as arbitrary and unaccountable.
Goodell sat next to Robert Jones, who spent 23 years in prison before his case was dismissed amid allegations of prosecutor misconduct, and Jerome Morgan, who spent 20 years in prison before a judge declared that he was actually innocent.
Norris Henderson, the executive director of VOTE, or Voice Of The Experienced, acknowledged that with a room full of defense attorneys and sympathetic football players, the panel was preaching to the choir. No one gave the perspective of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro or his predecessor, Harry Connick Sr.
Still, Henderson said, “even preaching to the choir, everyone needs to be in harmony.”
There were no grand agreements on criminal justice reform by the end of the day. The commissioner and players settled on a next step familiar to anyone who has ever sat through a long meeting: another meeting.
Nevertheless, there were some specific action items. Davis pledged to speak up in favor of the November ballot item that could do away with Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury rule, which allows just 10 of 12 jurors to send a defendant away for life.
Saints President Dennis Lauscha promised to speak with fellow business leaders about hiring the formerly incarcerated.
Meanwhile, Benson made an impromptu offer of office space in Benson Tower to Syrita Steib-Martin, the executive director of Operation Restoration, which helps women and girls re-entering society after prison stints.
Steib-Martin had just finished describing her own struggles in the workforce after prison.
“You’re going to make me cry,” Steib-Martin said, and then she did.