A Seattle Seahawks defensive end, No. 72, was surrounded by a small gathering at Busboys & Poets on 14th Street last week. His size made him stand out in the theater room, a few minutes before the doors opened and 200 folks piled in for “Silenced No More: Michael Bennett on Activism and Pro Sports.”
“I’m here because a bunch of friends locally asked me to come and speak about some things I’ve been doing,” Bennett told me. “They want me to talk about what athletes have been doing and what’s going in America right now.”
Star athletes typically don’t interrupt their offseason to catch a flight and speak at a lecture. Jet off for a commercial shoot? Sure. Fly away for a vacation? Absolutely. Hop a plane for business opportunities. Yes.
But Bennett, a Super Bowl champ and two-time Pro Bowler, is far from your ordinary athlete. He puts his family and community – local, national and international – ahead of his industry. That makes speaking out on conditions and current events only natural for him.
“I have kids,” he told me. “I want them to look back and say, ‘Daddy was a part of change. He just didn’t sit back and play sports. He really tried to help people.’ That’s my main goal.”
Of course, that makes him a controversial figure to those who are uncomfortable when athletes step outside the lines and speak about issues like human rights and social justice.
Bennett, who publicly supports the Black Lives Matter movement, ruffled feathers in January when he backed out of an Israeli government-sponsored trip to Israel. He had learned too much about the Palestinian conflict after accepting the invitation and explained his reversal in a letter that opened with “Hello World.”
He was unaware that the Israeli government wanted him and the other invited players to serve as “ambassadors of good will. I will not be used in such a manner,” he wrote. “I want to be a voice for the voiceless (Palestinian people) and I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel.
“… I know this will anger some people and inspire others,” he wrote. “But please know that I did this not for you, but to be in accord with my own values and my own conscious. Like 1968 Olympian John Carlos always says, ‘There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.’ Well, I’m in.”
The lecture was moderated by Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, and Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American scholar, human rights attorney and George Mason University professor. Erakat was among many people who asked Bennett to reconsider the trip. She said his decision rejuvenated her because he’s a man of conscious and his participation would’ve stung.
Erakat has worked on social causes with musicians and actors, but Bennett is the first athlete. She finds him inspiring and hopes he can encourage others, like the five NFL players who followed his lead and pulled out of the trip.
“Our professional sports industry has commodified our most exceptional athletes,” Erakat told the crowd. “They’re treated as entertainers who owe us something, not complete human beings in the fabric of our society with their own social entwinements. This has been demonstrated in the punishment of Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and possibly Colin Kaepernick.”
Why is it that actors and musicians can be activists but athletes are frowned upon for exercising the same rights?
Yes, many folks look at sports as an escape and don’t want to be reminded of real-life struggles that might or might not resonate with them. But folks go to movies and listen to songs for escape, too, usually retaining the ability to enjoy performers’ work even if disagreeing with their stances.
Bennett’s position is simple and admirable: He wants to aid fellow human beings. He’s donating all his endorsement money and half of the proceeds from his jersey sales to fund S.T.E.A.M. programs (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) for underprivileged children. He’s also funding inner-city garden projects and – inspired by his three young daughters – investing in initiatives for women.
Zirin thinks Bennett represents a shift among modern athletes in the age of social media, mentioning actions by Kaepernick and players who supported him; the U.S. women’s hockey and soccer teams; and Wisconsin basketball stars Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
“I think it’s ‘a moment,’” Zirin said afterward. “It’s not quite ‘a movement’ yet. But the moment is real.”
Bennett said he always planned to use his platform for good if he obtained one. He’s knows there’s danger in being outspoken, especially in a league focused on its fat bottom line. “You have to be careful,” he told the audience. “Because if it comes to stopping the revenue, you can possibly get in trouble.”
The hope is nothing happens to threaten to his livelihood, a possibility that Kaepernick might be experiencing. Bennett is proud of the quarterback for taking a knee AND taking action, donating and raising money for just causes. It’s a model to follow.
“I’m growing as a human being and as a man,” Bennett said. “As I read, I’m going to challenge what’s going on, challenge oppression, challenge politics and challenge sexism.
“Now that your eyes are open, it just changes you. “The worst thing you can do is be awake. Once you’re awoke, it’s hard to go back to sleep when you’re in this world.”
That’s a great message for athletes and non-athletes alike: Wake up and stay woke.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.