Seahawks’ Michael Bennett is an activist disguised as a football player

Seahawks’ Michael Bennett is an Activist disguised as a Football Player

On the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation, smack dab in the middle of South Dakota, celebrity sightings are as rare as traffic jams.

Which is why this June day is a little unusual.

At the community center off Crazy Horse Avenue, a crowd has gathered to catch a glimpse of a 6-foot-4, 270-pound visitor. Inside, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett is trying to stump a DJ hired for the event.

“Do you have the Isley Brothers?” Bennett asks. “You said you could play any song I wanted.”

The DJ, unable to meet his request, suggests Michael Jackson as an alternative.

“Which Michael Jackson?” Bennett quips. “The black Michael Jackson or the white Michael Jackson?”

A few giggles erupt from the kids. But Bennett switches off the jokes once members of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe officially welcome him by wrapping him in a sun quilt and performing a ceremonial song. The thump, thump, thump of the drums and throaty chants vibrate through the gym. Outside, the magnificent hues of green hills and powder blue skies mask the problems embedded in this community along the Missouri River.

Bennett offers an appreciative smile. But he isn’t comfortable or familiar with the culture or the land or the traditions.

He just arrived after driving more than 20 hours and 1,300 miles from Seattle to hold a health and fitness camp here. His Bennett Foundation holds free sports camps and programs for underprivileged families in locations he’s more familiar with: Texas, where he grew up; Washington state, where he plays; and Hawaii, where he resides in the offseason.

So why is he in Lower Brule?

For starters, his brother-in-law, Tristan Fire Cloud, grew up here. But there’s more to it: “I believe in the connection of people,” Bennett says. “It’s the connection of oppressed people around the world, of different colors, different cultures and not just thinking what you’re going through is the most important thing.”

He’s here to learn about the Sioux and their struggle as much as to run drills, offer nutrition tips and inspire the kids.

“I believe you need to be uncomfortable to become comfortable with different people,” he says.

The phrase lingers long after we’ve spoken. It’s not just his reason for being here; it sounds like his modus operandi for living.

It explains why he started to sit during the national anthem at games, following the example of former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick. Listen to Bennett speak for a few unfiltered minutes and it’s clear that he is an activist disguised as a professional football player. And like any seasoned activist, he’s not content with his own evolution. He wants others to join in, starting with those at the top.

The silence of the most visible NFL players on issues of racism and police brutality has been deafening to Bennett.

Contrast that with the NBA: Last July, after the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul stood in front of a packed audience at The ESPYS and told America that our society is broken.

“That was a power play,” Bennett says.

“I think the biggest problem in the NFL is that we have to be able to get the biggest people involved in the issues. Every day a white quarterback throws the ball to a black receiver, but when it comes to Black Lives Matter issues, they won’t step up and be like, ‘There is an issue.’ Could you imagine if Tom Brady was to say what happened to Philando Castile was a tragedy? How would that change America if Aaron Rodgers was to say, ‘Black lives do matter’?”

Rodgers, for his part, has made statements promoting tolerance (notably criticizing anti-Muslim comments made by a fan during a 2015 game) and freedom of expression. In a recent interview with ESPN The Magazine, Rodgers said that Kaepernick is not on an NFL roster now because of his national anthem protest. And Rodgers said he is supportive of teammates who “have a battle for racial equality,” an area the country needs to “remedy and improve.”

Michael Bennett has followed Colin Kaepernick’s example of silent protest by sitting during the playing of the national anthem. Joe Nicholson/USA Today Sports

Buffalo Bills kicker Steven Hauschka, who was Bennett’s teammate last season, was one of the few white NFL players to speak up as Kaepernick’s kneeling protest made headlines. In an Instagram post at the beginning of the 2016 season, Hauschka wrote, “For the people that don’t seem to get it (and want to sweep it under the rug), there is social injustice in this country. We need to acknowledge that and get educated on how to have these conversations … For the white people in our country, you are more important than you realize in this movement.”

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Hauschka would go on to say that he feels awkward speaking about racial injustice, adding, “I think a lot of white people are uncomfortable talking about it.”

Again, that word: uncomfortable.

Which brings us back to Bennett and his M.O. for advancing social justice.

“To be uncomfortable and turn that to comfortability is a hard transition for a human being,” Bennett says. “Because you get so comfortable being who you are, you get so comfortable living in your world. … To have that sense of being uncomfortable and being vulnerable — and those things work together. I mean, it’s hard to be vulnerable and be in a moment where you think, ‘I am uncomfortable, I don’t know anything about it, but I want to learn.’”

Bennett and a few others have made clear that they support Kaepernick and the national conversation he’s started. But more NFL players, especially white players, should have spoken up, he says.

“The thing that hurt me the most is, I’ve played with white players my whole life … and there’s white players in the NFL that don’t speak up about social issues that are going on in black America, when you’re playing with us every single day. It just bothers me. It just makes me be like, wow.

“It’s so simple for a lineman to block for Marshawn Lynch, but it’s a lot harder for that same lineman, if he’s a white lineman, to go to the neighborhood and see what Marshawn Lynch is doing and want to be a part of it,” Bennett says. “It’s a different ballgame if I bring Tom Brady. The same people that yell for Tom Brady, there’s some minority kids in jail, what he would inspire them to do if he came to the jail? How would he change their lives?”

Is this a challenge to them?

“This is definitely a challenge to them,” Bennett says. “I would love to work with Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, the biggest guys in the league.”

“Imagine me, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Olsen, my brother [Martellus Bennett] just sitting on stage and being like, ‘We’re tired of what’s going on in America. We want to fight for women’s equality. We want to fight to make sure that minority kids feel like they have a place. We want to challenge our brands and our leagues to make sure this is happening.’ People are going to fall in line. It’s going to be the biggest thing that ever happened.”

Bennett catches himself. He realizes such a grand display of unity may never happen. But he does have a plea:

“Don’t love us just when we catch the ball. Love us for our culture and what we’re going through and what we did in society and how we’ve been persecuted since we’ve been here.

“We need your help.”

We pride ourselves on loyalty to our sports teams, offering them a level of devotion on par with God and family. But to Bennett, most NFL supporters are fair-weather fans who don’t care about the human beings playing the game.

The season-ticket-holding, jersey-wearing, stats-memorizing, memorabilia-collecting among us may be offended by that. Let Bennett explain:

He knows that people love athletes. Their names are invoked at dinner tables, cubicles and in group texts every day, as if we’re speaking about long-distance friends. We wait in lines to get an autograph, a handshake, a picture, a hello.

But once talk of health and personal problems surface, of painkillers and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), of Mike Webster and Junior Seau, the hourlong debates turn monosyllabic: Sad. Scary. Tragic. Awful. Trite comments, awkward pauses, or worse, intentional silence.

Bennett wants to put a spotlight on that disconnect until people recognize that these entertainers with elite physical abilities are human and vulnerable. Just like us.

“They’re fans of you when you’re playing the sport,” Bennett says. “But nobody wants to be like, ‘Look at Steve Gleason. That’s what I want to happen to my son.’ Nobody wants to be a fan of Junior Seau when he murders himself and commits suicide. They want to say, ‘Those issues are different.’ But those issues are issues that are happening in sports.”

Entering his ninth year in the league, Bennett knows firsthand what players go through.

“The issues that fans don’t really care about are the issues that the players care about. Health issues, marital issues, how to raise a family, the concussion issue. Those are real issues that fans don’t want to associate with the game,” Bennett says. “As much as you cherish that game, those issues are the same things you need to cherish, too, because there’s a possibility that every time you look at Cam Newton, and you want him to duck his head on the fourth-and-1 … when you want Marshawn Lynch to run and do that, there’s a possibility that one day he won’t be able to think the same way. As much as you love Russell Wilson and the way that he moves and he shakes, there’s a possibility one day he won’t be able to walk.”

Zachary Bako for ESPN

It’s not just fans who need to understand the mortality and fragility of players, says Bennett. So do the athletes.

“So many players, after they retire, they don’t have that team anymore to help them get through that, and they can’t really be vulnerable with their wives with those issues. I want to bring those issues to light,” he says.

“I think dealing with emotional issues is a big problem with athletes in general because it’s hard. … The only time you can ever cry is when you win the championship. You got a newborn baby, you can’t shed a tear. … I think a lot of times, as athletes, you’re not able to do that. That’s like cutting the whole left side of your arm off, or your brain off, to not be able to be emotional.”

These issues, the ones that aren’t dissected ad nauseam on shows and podcasts, are the realities for players. Bennett wants fans to know about these struggles, even if it might turn an entertaining bit of escapism into another prism of messy reality.

Bennett doesn’t understand why an athlete would endorse fast food. “Most athletes don’t eat McDonald’s. That’s just a fact,” Bennett says. “You can’t be a great athlete and fill your body up with trash.”

Fighting childhood obesity is one of his foundation’s key initiatives. About 1 in 5 school-age kids in America is obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s a problem that acutely affects those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. At his camps, including the one in Lower Brule, Bennett asks a nutritionist to speak about food as medicine for the body, and eating as something meant to engage all five senses.

Bennett has turned down potential endorsements that didn’t align with his beliefs, although he declines to name them. Athlete endorsements for junk food and soda are so commonplace, though, there isn’t much outcry about them. But Bennett wants his fellow athletes and the corporations they endorse to feel uncomfortable about it.

“When you got this platform, you have to remember people are watching you. People are watching what you do, what you eat. That’s why people pay you to wear stuff. That’s why food companies pay you, because they know when you eat it, other people eat it. Having that platform is super important to me to be socially conscious not to sell the people that are looking up to me different things that I know are not right.”

Earlier this year, Bennett posted a photo of his three daughters on Instagram and announced that — inspired by Chance the Rapper’s $1 million pledge to Chicago Public Schools — he would donate all of his endorsement money from 2017 to help programs that benefit communities and women of color. “I’m asking all professional athletes to join me by donating a portion of your endorsements this year to a cause of your choice,” he wrote.

It wasn’t a suggestion. It almost sounded like a dare.

“We have to challenge the brands too. This is the generation where the athlete has the brand by the neck because we are the brand. We are the products. A long time ago it was the brand, and they controlled everything. Now, through social media, the athletes control the brand. We must keep these companies socially accountable.”

Bennett has learned firsthand that we live in a sexist society.

“This is how I know that women aren’t seen as equal,” Bennett says. “Every time I tell somebody I have a daughter, the first thing they tell me is, ‘You better get a gun.’”

Sons prompt comments about running a successful business or becoming star athletes. Having daughters, though, leads to warnings such as “Your teenager’s going to be crazy” or “Make sure you keep her in the house.”

Such comments insult the character of his daughters, he says.

“They don’t say anything to empower them. … They never say, ‘Wow, how lucky are you? You have a daughter? Look at all the things that your daughter can be.’ They look at me and they say, ‘You don’t have a son?’”

Bennett’s wife, Pele, had an important role in helping him come to that realization.

“In the beginning he was more defensive, like, ‘We’re going to have another baby and we’ll have a boy,’” Pele Bennett says. “But I told him, man, Michael, isn’t that crazy that people don’t congratulate you for having girls? And I think he finally noticed that, and I think that has really pushed him also, not to be a good dad — he already is — but to be even a better dad.”

Bennett’s Instagram feed is full of snapshots of him with Peyton, Blake and Ollie at the swimming pool, posing in Halloween costumes, taking hikes. The Bennetts also oversee an Instagram account for their daughters that serves as a virtual book club and encourages a love of reading and writing.

Zachary Bako for ESPN

“We had a lot of discussions about women’s equality, women’s rights,” Pele says. “And I think it’s one of those things, being in his sport, you don’t really see that. Because you’re around males all day long, you’re around like ‘macho’ guys, you don’t see the other side of things that’s going on … So after I started having kids, I think he’s just realizing some stuff that he thought they could do, they may have a harder time doing. So it’s like, ‘Wow, my daughter now has to fight three times harder than the male to get that position or get that role.’”

The barriers are even higher for black women and girls.

“I feel like with black daughters, women already face a greater challenge than men, but to add the color of their skin on top of that, I think that’s a very challenging situation. I think about it all the time. I constantly try to inspire my daughters to be bigger, more than just the color of their skin. To be seen as changemakers, to be seen as impactful, to be seen as who they really are,” Bennett says. “I think the black woman has been ostracized in American history over time. Look at any time in films, the way that they show black women is either in a sexual, seductive way or a very submissive way. This is just the truth. The black woman has always been shown to not to be equally as intelligent.”

Bennett is committed to destroying sexist categorizations and glass ceilings and has taken up the cause of women’s athletics as a vital piece in closing the gender equality gap.

“I think in this generation, I think the male athlete has to support the woman athlete. If we want to see their sports propelled, if we want to see them get paid equally, then we’re going to have to bring up the issues and be like, ‘Women are just as important as men when it comes to sports.’ A lot of people don’t believe that.”

No statistics are needed to prove his statement, which is why when prominent male athletes praise women’s sports, it comes as such a surprise.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Draymond Green said he enjoys watching WNBA games. “In the NBA there’s always a guy who is only around because he can jump,” Green said. “He doesn’t have a clue about the fundamentals. I learn more from the WNBA. They know how to dribble, how to pivot, how to use the shot fake.”

Kyrie Irving is another All-Star who has effusively praised the women’s game. “They play with such a unique style, the fundamentals of the game, the footwork, just little things that really make the difference in you being good and great,” Irving said during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games. “They’re awesome, man. I really, legitimately enjoy watching those girls play.”

This is the type of support that will go far in shifting public opinion, Bennett says.

“I think in this generation, I think it’s going to be important for us to continuously celebrate our women as they step up to different platforms … to empower young girls to not just be cheerleaders anymore. Not to just be, all you can do is go over there and take those pompoms and maybe do a flip. But let them know — you can own this team. Women have so many great qualities, and it’s time for them to let them stand right beside us and make sure that they’re seen as equal.”

Bennett stands at the edge of the Missouri River and looks across the water. Brian Molyneaux, an archaeologist based in Lower Brule, is telling him about the erosion eating up Native American land.

A few years ago, a nearby playground collapsed into the river. A new playground has been set up by the Washington Redskins. (Driving through the reservation, you can see huge Redskins banners hanging from some of the homes.) Since 1964, the shoreline has receded the length of three football fields.

The nearby Big Bend Dam and the Fort Randall Dam further south aggravated the erosion and caused a loss of plant life and other resources used by natives for food and medicine, Molyneaux tells him. Every year, an average of 2 to 3 yards of land is lost.

It’s just one of many challenges facing the Sioux: from alcoholism, unemployment and diabetes to lack of access to good food, recreation and education.

“You can literally come right here to Lower Brule and see how people are living, to see how people are oppressed all around the United States,” Bennett says. “I think you just have to stop believing that things are fair and things are equal. I mean, I know sometimes when you’re living your life, you seem like life is so easy and so good, until you experience how other people are living.”

Bennett admits he felt a bit uncomfortable here. It’s the same discomfort he felt when he realized his girls faced a tougher future than if they were boys. Or before withdrawing from a state-sponsored trip to Israel to express solidarity with stateless Palestinians.

It comes from coming in contact with the unfamiliar, facing new people, information and experiences that may shift your way of thinking and living. Bennett has grown accustomed to it. It’s made him better, he says.

And he doesn’t think anyone — anyone — is above challenging themselves to be uncomfortable. In fact, he dares you to.

Lois Nam is a senior digital producer for Andscape. She still owns the VHS of every Sixers playoff game from 2001 and will never throw them away.