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Michael Bennett says after Kaepernick settlement, ‘the movement’ has to be redefined

On-field fight between Malcolm Jenkins and Eric Reid showed lack of solidarity

Michael Bennett was conflicted when he heard the news that Colin Kaepernick had settled his lawsuit with the NFL.

“I was happy he won,” Bennett told me Tuesday evening after giving a talk at Princeton University. “I was happy he won. It was like, ‘Somebody finally beat The Man,’ ” Bennett said. “It’s about time, so somebody beat The Man.”

Bennett said the conflicted feeling was like that of a soldier who had lost an inspirational leader and, with it, a sense of direction. “Now what?” he asked. “Where do we go from here? Is the movement dead? Do we kneel? Is the kneeling over?”

Bennett, who spent last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, was traded to New England on Wednesday. He appreciated the irony that a self-styled activist, a key leader of the player protest movement, would be traded to a team whose owner, head coach and quarterback are supporters of President Donald Trump.

“We had the voice, but we weren’t really already able to articulate our message and state our demands. I think we still have a voice, but the amount of things we could have changed, the things we could have demanded, we didn’t reach that.” — Michael Bennett

The larger challenge for Bennett is how players can reignite the unprecedented momentum begun in 2016 when Kaepernick and Eric Reid took a knee during the playing of the national anthem.

That act of defiance created an unprecedented dialogue among athletes across the world and unlocked what had been a muted sense of power.

The collective voices and protests in NFL stadiums terrorized traditionally terror-proof owners. Until 2016, owners never had to face this type of uprising before. The NFL routinely beat players at the negotiating table. But this was different. This was not a contractual battle but a moral one, and the players were winning.

The period from August 2016 to February of this year, when Kaepernick and the NFL settled a lawsuit, was emotional, intense and emboldening. Bennett and many other players became courageous advocates of a number of initiatives.

You could make the argument that social protests emboldened stars such as Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown to make bold labor stands against the status quo. Brown forced the Pittsburgh Steelers’ hand and forced a trade to Oakland; Bell sat out all last season and just signed a lucrative contract with the New York Jets.

But Bennett’s point, rather his question, is poignant: What now? What next? Especially when the two significant leaders of the movement have arguably been neutralized by NFL money?

Last May, the Players Coalition led by Malcolm Jenkins accepted an estimated $80 million payment from the NFL to form a partnership to fund various initiatives around social justice. The coalition subsequently agreed to stop in-stadium protests.

Kaepernick and Reid sued the NFL for collusion. In agreeing to the settlement, each side agreed to non-disclosure and likely non-disparagement provisions.

“We’ll never know the total extent of the collusion, what the NFL really did and how deep it went,” Bennett said. His larger concern is that NFL players, who had owners on the run, may have missed an opportunity or, perhaps, were unprepared for the opportunity that was before them.

“We can’t really ask kids in Chicago to put down guns and not resort to violence if we’re not willing to practice what we preach.” — Michael Bennett about the on-field confrontation between Malcolm Jenkins and Eric Reid

“We had the platform. We had the voice. But it’s like, you look at a child who has an NBA body — he’s 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7 — but he doesn’t have the skills to articulate in the proper manner. I think that happened to us,” Bennett said. “We had the voice, but we weren’t really already able to articulate our message and state our demands.

“I think we still have a voice, but the amount of things we could have changed, the things we could have demanded, we didn’t reach that.”

During a game between the Eagles and Carolina Panthers late last season, there was a dramatic and disturbing moment when Reid, playing for Carolina, confronted Jenkins before the start of the game. This might have been great theater, but Bennett said the confrontation was a terrible look for unity and brotherhood among black players who had so effectively put owners on the defensive.

“We can’t really ask kids in Chicago to put down guns and not resort to violence if we’re not willing to practice what we preach,” he said.

The question moving forward is whether the fissures are healed. Can Kaepernick and Reid, Jenkins and the Players Coalition meet as one?

“I think we all would like to do that,” Bennett said. “I’d like to get to a place where it’s OK to have a different idea of what freedom looks like, of what you see as justice.”

He added, “There’s this idea that we have to choose. We have to put ourselves in a box, put our ideas in a box, that we have to all think one way.”

There was a two-year period of unity when NFL players set the tone and laid the foundation for effective and powerful activism.

Can Bennett, now playing on a Super Bowl-contending team, continue to lead the fight and bring players together?

Indeed.

Bennett plans to eventually enroll in graduate school and become a student of social and political movements. Last year, he published his book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.”

What’s next? What now?

“As long as we can get to that place where we can respect each other and understand that everybody is putting in a certain amount of work and put egos aside,” he said, “we can be better and brighter leaders.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.