METAIRIE, La. -- Two of the New Orleans Saints' most prominent social activists, Benjamin Watson and Demario Davis, enjoyed powerful experiences during the team's bye week that demonstrated the inroads they have been making as members of the NFL Players Coalition.
Watson was invited to the White House last Wednesday to meet with President Donald Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and discuss ideas for criminal justice reform.
Meanwhile, Saints owner Gayle Benson and New York Jets CEO Christopher Johnson both joined Davis at the Bronx Defenders gala in New York to support the veteran linebacker as he received an "In Pursuit of Justice" award for his own efforts to support criminal justice reform.
"I don't think it was about making a big statement, even though it was [one]," Davis said of the owners attending and supporting him. Davis spent five of the past six seasons with the Jets.
"Anytime you can have the support of team owners behind players and the league and the shield behind players and their efforts off the field, it's amazing. And especially when it comes to social justice and what's going on in our country right now, that's making a huge statement in itself," Davis said. "But especially Mrs. Benson and Chris Johnson who were there, the personal relationship I have with them, they're just great people. Great people who care about the community and care about other humans and doing what's right. I think that sends a message in itself. So it was amazing to have her there. My wife and I were very appreciative."
Benson, who also joined Watson, Davis, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Saints president Dennis Lauscha and Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan on a tour of New Orleans' criminal justice system last month, said she was "so touched" to be invited by Davis.
"I was happy to attend for him and his cause. ... He received an honor and I wanted to be there to share with him," said Benson, who also referenced how informative that criminal justice tour was last month.
Watson's White House meeting was even more surprising, considering how much tension there has been between President Trump and the NFL players after he has so strongly rebuked those who have knelt and sat during the national anthem.
Watson said it's possible he is the first member of the NFL Players Coalition to have such a meeting with a member of Trump's administration -- though he was not invited in that capacity. He was invited by Syrita Steib-Martin, who runs Operation Restoration in New Orleans for women and girls re-entering society following prison stints.
However, Watson said he has been in contact with Kushner while Kushner has been spearheading a prison-reform bill called The First Step Act. Watson said it was actually Fox News host Laura Ingraham who put them in contact after Watson appeared on her show and joked she should give him President Trump's phone number.
Watson said last Wednesday's meeting was a "cool" and productive experience where everyone shared their ideas. Watson's cousin, who runs a prisoner-reform organization in Virginia, also attended.
"So it's one of those things where you're never gonna agree with everything somebody does. But I think it's important for me going ... and kind of having a dialogue. And maybe it leads to something, maybe it doesn't," said Watson, who said he still believes Trump alienated players with his derisive comments last year and doesn't agree with policies that the president supports, like "Stop and Frisk."
"But the president has stated even when he was running and inaugurated that he wanted to support criminal justice reforms," Watson said. "Now what that means is yet to be determined, but he has commuted some sentences, granted some clemency, as we've seen. He's allowing Jared to head up that department, so to speak. So we know the president has said he's open to it. It's just a matter of how that rolls out. So, that's positive."
Watson, 37, still marvels at the turn his life has taken since his Facebook post on racial issues following the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, went viral. He has since authored two books and become a prominent voice on race and social issues.
"You never know [where it will lead]," Watson said. "I just want to follow it faithfully."