Regarding his professional athletic life, Michael Bennett is paid to be a disrupter. Regarding his personal life, the Seahawks star is a disrupter by choice. He’s bringing the latter to a conscience near you. Perhaps your own.
For some 12s, it’s about to get awkward. Which is, of course, his point. If you choose to shut him out, he’ll come to the attention of your kids.
“I look at myself as trying to inspire children, young people of different colors and genders, whatever they are, to want to change their environment and continuously push whatever they think is right,” he said Saturday night after the Seahawks’ 48-17 exhibition win over Chargers in Carson, CA. “I’m challenging people to be uncomfortable. Everybody’s in their comfort zone right now. Become uncomfortable, and go out and see what it’s like out there in society right now.”
What was out there Saturday was a repulsive episode of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, VA., perpetrated by neo-Nazi white supremacists emboldened to brazenness by the election of President Trump. It took Trump, normally an impulse tweeter, 48 hours to muster a scripted scolding of the racist perps that had the bare minimum of belated sincerity after a national outrage.
It took less than 24 hours for Bennett to respond. He sat for the pre-game national anthem. He plans to do it again all season, or until a nation built on diversity and inclusion, particularly via sports, finds its way again.
“With everything that’s been going on the last couple of months, and especially after the last couple of days seeing what’s going on in Virginia, and earlier today in Seattle,” Bennett said Saturday. “I just wanted to be able to use my platform to be able to continuously speak on injustice.”
Even many fans who agree with Bennett wish he would find a place for his protest other than the stadium, normally the oasis from politics so many crave. But politics have been part of sports since the first Olympics in Greece 3,000 years ago.
Sometimes it ebbs. Now it flows.
For those who wish not to hear or see what Bennett has to say, think of it this way. As the vulgarians poured anti-black and anti-Semitic epithets, they fell upon the ears of a sports league where African Americans fill more than 70 percent of the roster spots, and whose ownerships and front offices have numerous Jews and Muslims as well as blacks.
Please try to tell them that you don’t want to indulge Bennett’s protest.
It’s worth considering that Bennett may be almost uniquely qualified for the job he has volunteered to take.
He’s respectful of the military and police, active with words, deeds and cash to causes, is as engaged as a pro sports athlete can be in the lives of his three daughters, and is afraid of nothing, including being vulnerable in public.
He’s articulate, passionate and also one of the best players in the NFL. Gravitas, I believe it’s called.
“I want to make sure people understand, I love the military,” Bennett said. “My father was in the military (retired Navy). I love hot dogs like any other American, I love football like any other American.
“But I don’t love segregation, I don’t love riots, I don’t love oppression, I don’t love gender-slandering. I just want to see people have the equality that they deserve.”
I’m curious to hear the comeback from critics of that mission statement.
Bennett of course is following the NFL trail-breaking a year ago of then-49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to kneel before the anthem set off a national firestorm that put him on the cover of Time magazine and in the crosshairs of many fans. Some contend his protest is why Kaepernick, who opted out of his San Francisco deal to become a free agent, remains unemployed.
I doubt that there’s any NFL conspiracy to keep him out; the NFL isn’t smart enough for that, at least without it leaking. But Kaepernick also made some poor decisions beyond the anthem gesture that allowed his basic position about social injustice to be ridiculed and thus dismissed by those eager to make him irrelevant.
Mocking police by wearing pig socks, sporting a Fidel Castro T-shirt, and failing to vote compromised his position to some. Bennett has a flippant sense of humor that may get him in trouble, but when he stays serious, he blunts the critics.
In an interview on a New York radio station earlier this summer, Bennett alluded to Kaepernick’s missteps.
“For him to bring up race and politics in sports, I think it struck a lot of people in the wrong way,” he said. “You watch the people that really watch football, it’s middle America and the people that buy tickets to the game aren’t really African-American people.
For him to bring that into that crowd was one thing that people felt like shouldn’t have been there.”
Bennett takes a different tack.
“How can we continuously love one another and understand that people are different?” he said Saturday. “Just because they’re different doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like them. Just because they don’t smell the way you smell, just because they don’t eat what you eat, just because they don’t pray to the same God you pray to, that doesn’t mean you should hate them.
“Whether it’s Muslim, whether it’s Buddhist, whether it’s Christian, I just want people to understand that no matter what, we’re in this thing together. It’s more about being a human being at this point.”
Because of the potential for division, Bennett was also careful to isolate himself away from any team protest. Neither did he call teammates to join him.
“I just want to do my own thing,” he said. “I don’t want to be a distraction to my teammates, don’t want to be a distraction to the organization or Pete (Carroll).
“I’m just doing what I feel is right, and I dedicate my life to doing this. This is my purpose, this is what I believe in, changing society, going into communities, doing organic work and continue to push the message that things aren’t fair.”
He knows what he’s in for.
“Of course I’m going to face backlash,” he said. “This is bigger than me. This is bigger than football. This is about people, this is about bringing opportunities to people, giving people equality. This is bigger than a sport.
“At the end of the day, you can’t take your accolades with you. But what you can do is leave a legacy that you can give kids to seize, to be able to inspire.”
Bennett began building a non-football legacy long before the past weekend. But it’s hard to know where his choices will take him. He has a quick temper and has had more than his share of reckless moments in games and in media scrums. And he’s about to turn off at least some of his fans who don’t get that the flag was born as a symbol of rebellion.
As he does to quarterbacks, he’s bringing awkwardness and discomfort. At least for the rest of us, we have time to listen and think.
Just don’t bother complaining to the Seahawks about it. The club’s website Sunday night published everything he said post-game. Politics are part of the game in America.