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Athlete Activism

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett finds his place as an activist

The Pro Bowler spoke on Colin Kaepernick and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Washington, D.C.

So many people filed into the theater room in the back of Washington, D.C.’s, Busboys and Poets restaurant that extra seats had to be brought onstage and circled around the night’s guest speaker.

The man they all crowded to see was Michael Bennett, a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks who signed a $31.5 million contract extension last December. Yet, on this night in the NFL offseason, Bennett was far from a Pro Bowler or Super Bowl champion. As he spoke with portraits of the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. hanging above him, he was a father and activist.

“I flew 15 hours to be here, to be able to speak about different things,” Bennett, who makes Hawaii his offseason home, said Monday during a lecture titled “Silenced No More: Michael Bennett on Activism and Pro Sports,” which was moderated by Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, and Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights attorney and professor at George Mason University.

“These are the kind of conversations that have to be had, to be able to show my commitment by giving my time and show that I’m truly about the struggles, truly about what’s going on,” Bennett told The Undefeated after the discussion. “Trying to make change is superimportant to me. I just wanted to make sure I was here and make sure I was able to speak to people — make sure people see that there are players out here that are trying to make change.”

Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman, along with Dave Zirin and Noura Erakat, takes questions from the audience at a panel at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., on April 10.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Many know Bennett as half of the NFL’s most beloved tandem of unfiltered and outspoken brothers. After winning Super Bowl LI as a member of the New England Patriots, the younger Martellus Bennett, now a tight end for the Green Bay Packers, proclaimed that he would not be attending the team’s visit with President Donald Trump at the White House — and that he didn’t care what Patriots owner Robert Kraft thought.

Michael Bennett has been live and direct in his own right, including calling out two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry for charging kids to attend his summer camp and criticizing an investigation conducted by the FBI, NFL security and Texas law enforcement to find Tom Brady’s stolen Super Bowl LI jersey, even though “we still don’t know who killed Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.,” he said.

Bennett has continuously supported former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to spark a conversation on racial injustice in the United States by kneeling during the national anthem before games last season. And in February, Bennett pulled out of a trip that he and 10 other NFL players were invited to go on by the Israeli government, which envisioned the athletes serving as “influencers” and “goodwill ambassadors” for the country. After Bennett wrote a letter to the “world,” in which he detailed exactly why he would not make the trip, five other players, including his brother, joined Bennett in backing out.

These two topics, Kaepernick and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, were at the heart of Monday’s discussion, during which Zirin and Erakat asked Bennett several questions about the connection between activism and sports before giving the floor to the audience for questions of their own.

Erakat, who is working on a book-length manuscript narration of the conflict as told through international law, asked Bennett what went into his initial decision to go to Israel, and what made him change his mind.

“I think at the time all I heard was a free trip to Israel. I can honestly say that was one of my problems for not doing my research about what was happening. But then once it started getting closer, I was like, ‘Whoa, OK, this is not what I signed up for,’ ” Bennett said. “I thought it was just a trip for us to go see certain things. I didn’t know it was a government-sponsored trip. It was one of those things where it just wasn’t the right thing for me. There’s some people that were mad at me because I didn’t go.”

Forthcoming with both Erakat and the crowd, Bennett shared the most emotional part about the experience of deciding whether to go on the trip.

Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman, speaks at a panel at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., on April 10.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

“I can honestly say as a man, I actually cried in my room with my wife. I was so emotional when I told her. I was like, ‘I just didn’t know.’ I didn’t know what was really going on to certain people,” he said. “It was emotional to me because I seen so many different things. … I seen the people, I seen the kids, I seen the women, I seen the wall, I seen all this stuff that all these people weren’t being able to do, I seen the school. I just seen so much. I was just like, ‘Man, this just reminds me of being in the civil rights movement and what’s going on at this time.’ For me, I just couldn’t do it.”

Bennett’s answer ignited a loud ovation from the crowd before he broke the serious tone. “Do not tweet I was crying. I can hear Tom Brady calling me up right now,” he joked as the audience began to boo the Super Bowl-winning quarterback. “They found his jersey,” Bennett reminded everyone.

When the discussion shifted to Kaepernick, Zirin asked the much-debated question: Right now, he’s a man without a team. Do you think he’s being politically blackballed?

“I’ve said this before. I’ve been said this for like the last couple months. Of course I feel like he’s being blackballed, obviously because of his position. … For Kaepernick to take that knee, it changed a lot of people’s minds. It ruffled a lot of people’s feathers. It ruffled a lot of locker rooms,” said Bennett of Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract with the 49ers to become a free agent after his season of protest.

“I talk to him all the time, and it’s like, ‘Wow, man, you’re like on a whole ’nother level. You’re doing it. You’re doing exactly what you said you’re gonna do. You followed through, and you’re a man of the people.’ To love the people, you have to be able to die for the people. And I don’t mean dying physically, but dying spiritually. Changing your whole mindset of who you used to be and what you thought was important. Now that your eyes are open, it just changes you. The worst thing you can do is be awake. And once you’re awake, it’s hard to go back to sleep when you’re in this world.”

The questions kept coming, and Bennett kept answering until the room had to be cleared out. He spoke on topics from the militarization of the NFL to how athletes should handle backlash in response to speaking out.

Afterward, Bennett remained in the bookstore of Busboys and Poets, where he took photographs, made small talk about football and took business cards from those hoping he’d consider supporting their cause.

An audience member takes a photo during a panel discussion with Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., on April 10.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

“To me, Michael Bennett — and it’s even wrong to say he’s on the Mount Rushmore of this moment, because Mount Rushmore implies that somebody is remote from what the people are going through — Michael Bennett’s arm is always extended,” Zirin told The Undefeated. “Always listening. Always communicating. Always talking. And that as a model makes him exceptional among these political athletes.”

He didn’t take a knee like Kaepernick and hasn’t gone the route of Anquan Boldin or Malcolm Jenkins, who’ve visited Congress to advocate for criminal justice reform. But Bennett is very much a part of the pro-political athlete movement that sports is experiencing.

“I fit in this movement on a more organic level. There’s people taking the political route, but my approach is more organic, actually doing work in the community,” Bennett told The Undefeated. “I think that’s where it really starts. The investment in the kids. The investment with time and money to help change is, I think, the most important part.”

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.