All eyes were on Michael Bennett Friday in Seattle as the Seahawks defensive end planted his rear end on the bench during the national anthem for a second straight week.
Assuming the mantle worn last season by now-jobless 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Bennett has suddenly made himself a pariah to thousands of his fellow Americans who believe passionately in anthem etiquette. What’s more, he’s made himself a nuisance in the NFL’s multimillion-dollar patriotism pageant.
For this preseason home game, however, Bennett wasn’t alone; a white teammate was by his side offering solidarity and, in Bennett’s view, lending important support to this protest by an isolated black man. Seahawks center Justin Britt stood next to the bench, right hand resting on Bennett’s shoulder.
Britt is one of many to stand up in the last week for Bennett’s freedom to sit down. Special Forces soldiers from JBLM reassured Bennett they fight for his right to protest. On the TNT opinion pages, more letter writers than we have space to print have chimed in on the anthem controversy, mostly arguing for Bennett.
Count us among those defending this football player and the liberty he represents. He’s free to use his professional platform to denounce what he believes is wrong with his country. Likewise, his many detractors are free to denounce him in whatever legal way they wish: by sharing social media screeds, boycotting Seahawks games or burning his jersey, if it makes them feel better.
But doesn’t it seem silly to waste one’s anger on a civil protest at a sporting event, a peaceful act of defiance that clocked in shorter than the solar eclipse? Isn’t such outrage best reserved for the extremist vitriol and violence we just witnessed in Charlottesville?
Bennett’s sit-ins will never be confused with the Greensboro lunch-counter demonstrations of 1960. He’s sacrificing celebrity capital and possible loss of future endorsement income; the Greensboro Four and other Civil Rights era champions subjected themselves to very real mortal danger.
There’s also an unfocused quality to what Bennett hopes to achieve. Sometimes he says he’s trying to start conversations; other times he says he’ll keep sitting until “everything’s equal, everybody has justice, everybody has freedom.”
Like Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, we believe in America’s unifying rituals and would prefer to see all gathered at Century Link Field rise to their feet when the anthem’s sung. Part of us winces when we see a wealthy athlete withdraw from this tradition, his butt on the bench and a towel over his head. (Thankfully, Bennett shed the towel in the second game.)
But Bennett has earned credibility because of how he conducts his life; he is no dilettante when it comes to social issues. He pours his money and time into causes such as rebuilding inner city communities, empowering women of color and fighting childhood obesity.
If his sitting provokes a deeper conversation about the modern face of racism, the good and bad of nationalist symbols, and the privileges and responsibilities of free speech, why is that a bad thing?
Seeing influential people stirred by social conscience in times of racial struggle sure beats the alternative. Consider Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who told a beat reporter last week why he’d never sit for the anthem:
“At the end of the day, the only people I can help is my wife, my kids, my family – and that’s it ...,” Francois said. “So at the end of the day, you just want to back off and be like, ‘Man, forget it. In due time it’ll take care of itself, hopefully.’”
In the history of America’s free speech battles, unpopular ideas held by people who won’t back off, who refuse to “forget it,” are always the ones that most need protecting.
Michael Bennett’s anthem protest isn’t a textbook First Amendment issue. Government isn’t suppressing his speech. Neither are the Seahawks, nor the NFL.
Even so, it calls to mind the words of English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall. To paraphrase: I may not always agree with what you have to say. But I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.