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Michael Bennett and the coming year of unprecedented activism in NFL

The defensive end is now a symbol of what the battle for racial equality is all about

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A fast-growing movement swept through the NFL last season, fueled by Colin Kaepernick’s willingness to risk his career to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color in the United States. This season, Michael Bennett could become the new face of unprecedented political activism within the league.

On Wednesday, NFL players and civil rights leaders rallied around Bennett, a star defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks and an outspoken proponent of players using their platforms to effect social change, after he accused police officers of racial profiling. Officers pointed guns at him and used excessive force during an incident in Las Vegas last month, Bennett wrote in a disturbing yet-all-too-familiar post on social media. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has launched an internal investigation into the incident.

One of the leading voices in pushing player protests forward, Bennett also is now a symbol of what the battle for racial equality is all about, activists say. And NFL players, whose protests had already expanded during the preseason, now have another reason to demonstrate in an effort to change minds.

On a statement posted to Twitter, Bennett detailed his account of his interaction with police on Aug. 26 after the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight in Las Vegas, when he was apprehended after the sound of gunshots rang out in a crowded area. Officers pointed guns at Bennett “for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he wrote, and ordered him to lie down on the ground. With his gun drawn, one officer warned Bennett that he would “blow my f—ing head off” if he moved, the post continued. Yet another officer jammed his knee into Bennett’s back and handcuffed him.

Placed in a police car, Bennett was eventually released after officers confirmed his identity. Since he was not a suspect, police permitted him to leave “without any legitimate justification for the Officers’ abusive conduct.” The officers “apparently realized I was not a thug, common criminal or ordinary black man but Michael Bennett a famous professional football player,” Bennett wrote.

Kaepernick, in large part, sat and then kneeled during the national anthem last season to spur more discussion about the disproportionately negative interactions that black and brown people have with law enforcement. The situation Bennett described is a textbook example of what Kaepernick, Bennett and other players strive to change, and that’s why the NFL has become the new front line in the battle for racial equality, Stephen A. Green said.

Green is president of The People’s Consortium, a civil rights group committed to nonviolent change. He spearheaded a successful rally at NFL headquarters in New York last month in support of Kaepernick, who remained unsigned as the new season kicked off Thursday night despite being a highly accomplished free-agent quarterback. What Bennett described “isn’t surprising at all,” Green said. “We’ve seen this happen [with black men] time after time.

“Even when Michael Bennett can find himself in a position where he feels police are unjustly interacting with him in a violent way, it shows how important it is for NFL players to shine a light on this pervasive culture. With the protests we continue to see, that’s what players are doing. And it’s only getting bigger.”

Bennett’s brother, Green Bay tight end Martellus Bennett, also has spoken out on social justice issues. He became emotional after viewing a video of the incident for the first time. “I had to walk out of meetings because I broke down crying, just thinking about what could have happened, what could have been,” said Martellus Bennett, who released his own political cartoon last month to serve as his statement on society and race relations. “It was just so close. You never know these days.”

It was Michael Bennett who recently called for white players to back their African-American teammates in anthem protests, arguing that the show of support could change opinions of those who believe that Kaepernick and others were only focusing on “black issues.” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long became the first white player to answer the call, and others, including Bennett’s Seattle teammate Justin Britt, have followed. Moreover, 12 Cleveland Browns players, including the first white player, took a knee during the preseason.

“Obviously, we [players] always knew why it was real and why it was important to us. Some people want to say we’re disrespectful. Some people want to say it’s wrong, or we’re just doing it without any real thought behind it. But with what happened to Bennett, now they see what really goes into this. Now they see why we’re working to change things. Or at least you hope they now see and understand.” – Brandon Marshall

The movement is still growing, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said.

“You can’t deny it,” said Marshall, the third player last season not to stand during the anthem after Kaepernick and San Francisco safety Eric Reid. “We now have white players protesting as well, which is huge because of what it brings to the discussion. In some people’s eyes, it brings validity to the protest.

“Obviously, we [players] always knew why it was real and why it was important to us. Some people want to say we’re disrespectful. Some people want to say it’s wrong, or we’re just doing it without any real thought behind it. But with what happened to Bennett, now they see what really goes into this. Now they see why we’re working to change things. Or at least you hope they now see and understand.”

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Reid voiced his support for Bennett and for continuing the peaceful struggle for progress. “I’ve seen people say, ‘Why do [professional athletes] speak up, because, how are y’all oppressed?’ ” Reid said. “At the end of the day, you’re just another person in society. It doesn’t matter how much fame you have. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. The system treats black and brown people this way.”

Because of their personal backgrounds, black NFL players are uniquely positioned to take the conversation higher this season, activists say.

“Folks often forget that these people who we love watching so much, who entertain us, have whole experiences that are poured into the entirety of who they are,” said Symone D. Sanders, a political strategist and CNN commentator. “And a number of these young men are young African-American men from inner cities all across the country.

“But no matter how much money they make, what type of car they drive, where they went to school or what team they play for, sometimes all people see them as is black men in America. And if you would like a real live example of that, all you have to do is look no further than Michael Bennett.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.