Roger Goodell, Saints players learn about New Orleans' criminal justice system

METAIRIE, La. -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell joined New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson and a trio of Saints players on Tuesday for an in-depth look at New Orleans' criminal justice system.

Also, Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill joined three of his players in a Tuesday meeting with Arizona governor Doug Ducey as part of the NFL's ongoing efforts to effect social change.

Goodell's visit to New Orleans was the latest in a series of "Listen & Learn" tours that have taken place around the league over the past year -- one of many initiatives introduced by the Players Coalition in the wake of Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest and the social movement that followed.

Although anthem protests have created a firestorm, Saints tight end and Players Coalition member Benjamin Watson said what matters most is "how can we take this, which is now something people are talking about, and steer it in a way that is productive and creates the change that we want."

"So I am proud of the way that no matter how we got to this point, I'm proud of the way that players have continued to educate themselves and the way that the NFL has come alongside us and helped us in this way," Watson said, "because good can come from however something like that starts."

To that point, the Players Coalition penned an op-ed in The Players' Tribune last week that implored fans, media, politicians and owners to stop focusing solely on who is protesting during the anthem and to "refocus attention back on the systemic issues that plague the lives of millions of Americans."

They wrote: "The Coalition's actions are motivated by a deep patriotism, a desire to ensure that the realities of this country match its stated ideals, and that we live up to America's foundational promise of opportunity and equality for all."

Watson, Saints linebacker Demario Davis (who is also a member of the coalition) and Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan joined Goodell, Benson and Saints president Dennis Lauscha as they spent a full day sitting in on bail hearings and meeting with public defenders, former prisoners and leaders of grassroots organizations dedicated to criminal justice reform.

Watson and Davis already lent their support to a law that was passed in Louisiana earlier this year, restoring voting rights to felons on parole or probation after five years.

Other topics discussed Tuesday included Louisiana's law that juries need only 10 out of 12 votes for a life-sentence conviction, and the unfairness of a user-funded court system when it comes to setting bail.

At one point, according to reports from NOLA.com and The New Orleans Advocate, Benson offered up 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.

"I thought it was great, man," Watson said. "The [NFL's] planning with the coalition, as well as in conjunction with the Saints ... was very constructive.

"They have their viewpoints, which are varied, as well as ours are. But they've been more than willing to converse with players, to have Roger there and to have Mrs. Benson there ... so it just shows that there are issues that we all can care about, no matter what our occupation is, no matter what our political bent is. It's not really about that. It's about people."

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Cardinals safeties Antoine Bethea and Tre Boston and defensive tackle Corey Peters attended the meeting with the governor, which was organized by Bidwill to begin a dialogue about criminal justice reform that focused, in part, on the overpopulation of the state's prisons.

Bethea said "there was some real good dialogue" between the players and the governor's side.

"We definitely voiced our opinion on some things," Bethea said -- as did Ducey.

"He had some great ideas," Bethea said. "Some great ideas. Already had some programs implemented. The teamwork, us teaming up in the near future in being able to do some good things. I'm excited for it."

Boston said the most important aspect of the meetings was both sides understanding each other.

"It'll only get better with more dialogue, with more understanding of what we went in there for," Boston said. "The more I can talk to you, let you understand how I grew up, how I lived, the more I can kind of feel for it."

Boston said discussing prison overpopulation was a "good first step."

He hopes that Arizona can get to a point where it's shutting down prisons instead of continuing to fill them at a high rate. In 2016, according to the Department of Justice, Arizona had the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country.

Boston hopes any prison reform will be two-fold: help prevent overpopulation and help former prisoners get back on their feet. One idea Boston had was to have job fairs for released prisoners.

"How can we keep them out of petty crimes, the petty stuff, things like that," Boston said. "On the way out, how can [we] get them jobs. If you've done a good job, you're a good Samaritan, yeah you've made a bad choice, how can we get you a job going forward, really caring for them once they get out."

Tuesday might have just been the first step, the players agreed, but there was progress, Bethea added.

"When we can talk about it, you can dialogue, you can come to an agreement on some things," he said. "Obviously, you have your short-term goals and your long-term goals. Obviously, you're going to put a lot of work into it. It's not going to be something that's going to happen overnight. Just being able to have that dialogue and sit and talk means that we can take it somewhere."