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Seahawks players say enough talk about protests, take direct action

Players start a fund to help cops and prisoners, but Michael Bennett vows to continue his protest

In the year that has passed since Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality and social inequality, many NFL players say they have grown weary of talk and symbolic gestures and want to take tangible action.

In Seattle, the Seahawks established something they call the Action Fund.

Richard Sherman, a veteran cornerback for the Seahawks, said the fund is designed to educate police officers about issues in the communities they patrol. The fund is also designed to help inmates with everything from legal issues to transitioning out of prison. Primarily, the Action Fund is an attempt to get beyond symbolic gestures and move in the direction of action.

“We’re trying to help people,” Sherman said Sunday after Seattle defeated the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

The Seahawks, like most teams, have players with nonprofit foundations addressing a multitude of causes and issues, from education to mental health to a variety of medical issues. The Action Fund was designed to rally the team around one issue: “This is straight social activism, and the whole team is involved,” Sherman said.

As he spoke about the larger issues raised by Kaepernick, Sherman, who has been one of the NFL’s more outspoken players, said there was mounting frustration among players over being pulled in so many directions.

“You kneel, you stand. If there’s no action behind it, it doesn’t mean anything. It got tiring just dealing with the conversation. Why keep doing that when you can take action?”

On Sunday, eight Seahawks players sat during the playing of the national anthem.

One of those players, Michael Bennett, said he will continue to sit until Kaepernick is signed by an NFL team. Bennett reiterated his position Sunday, saying that Kaepernick has been treated unfairly and unjustly.

“He’s had an impact in the country,” Bennett said. “You see how what he started has affected communities, from young children to older Americans.”

While players and NFL owners met in New York last week to discuss big-picture items and what some may view as a pie-in-the-sky initiative, Bennett said he is focused on Kaepernick. “You never want to leave a person behind; that’s the way of the brotherhood in the NFL. I think it’s really important that we make sure that we talk about one of our own and give him the opportunity to be able to compete at something that he loves,” Bennett said. “He shouldn’t be sacrificed because he brought up a complicated issue that nobody wants to talk about.”

There has been a ferocious tug of war over who controls the narrative of Kaepernick’s protest. Players such as Bennett have made clear that the protest is not about the act of kneeling vs. standing, locking arms vs. sitting, the flag or patriotism. The protests are not really only about Kaepernick’s employment.

“It’s always been broader than that,” Bennett said. “It’s always been about justice and discrimination in America, police brutality, women’s rights — issues in America that we all need to pay attention to.”

Still, the apparent blackballing of Kaepernick cannot be ignored.

Seattle passed on Kaepernick when the team clearly needed a backup quarterback. Baltimore passed when its starting quarterback broke his ribs, opting to go with a former Arena League quarterback. Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on Oct. 15, leaving the Green Bay Packers to rely on a third-year player with little experience. Carson Palmer broke his collarbone on Sunday. Still, Kaepernick remains unsigned.

Players, Bennett said, will have to continue to keep the pressure on NFL team owners, who clearly feel the heat from multiple sources: fans who resent the protests, fans who resent the league’s apparent blacklisting of Kaepernick, and sponsors.

“Every single player wants to see him get an opportunity,” Bennett said. He added that he has spoken with DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, about Kaepernick.

“It’s a tricky situation,” Bennett said of the NFLPA’s involvement. “But what’s right is right.

“He’s trying to do something. He just needs to be more vocal and have more conviction about getting the man an opportunity.’’

Owners and players are scheduled to meet again next week. Bennett did not attend the last meeting and may not attend the next either, but he believes players should engage their employers.

“The players should meet with them and discuss changes they’d like to see,” Bennett said. “One of those changes should be bringing Kaepernick in.’’

For Sherman, however, black football players who have been at the forefront of the NFL protests should not be expected to lead only by themselves. The entire African-American community, Sherman said, should be engaged and willing to make sacrifices as well.

“Everybody’s sitting back watching us and saying, ‘Y’all should do it all,’ ” Sherman said. Speaking in general terms, Sherman said, he hears a lot of black folks talking but not acting. “It’s frustrating. You’re not doing anything to make a difference. You’re not trying to come up with any ideas, but you’re saying, ‘Y’all need to solve the problem.’ ”

Sherman added: “It’s going to take more than us. A lot of people want to take the easy route. They want to sit back and wait for the athletes to make the decisions and make all the sacrifices. They say, ‘Stop playing, don’t play the games,’ and all of that. Y’all want us to make the ultimate sacrifice, but you wouldn’t even cut your TV off and not watch the games.”

The conversation that Kaepernick began last year with a simple kneeling gesture has expanded into a multifaceted movement that has triggered backlash, fierce debate and questions about next steps.

This much has been made clear: Protesting is not a spectator sport.

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.