On the night he acknowledged the pregame national anthem by sitting alone on the bench, with a towel draped over his head, Michael Bennett insisted he was neither anti-military nor anti-American.
“I love the military, my father’s in the military,” he said after the Seahawks exhibition opener Sunday. “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 or oppression.
“I just want to see people have the equality they deserve, and I want to use my platform to be able to continuously push the message of that.”
Bennett’s outspoken advocacy for equality is laudable, and any reasonable person shares his loathing of segregation, riots and oppression.
But there’s a problem about this “platform” he mentioned. It’s not entirely his and his alone. From the the moment he takes the field before kickoff, and the moment he returns to locker room after the final gun, Bennett belongs to a team.
As an accomplished NFL player, he has ample opportunities to serve as a change agent preaching justice for all: Seven months during the off-season, six full days a week between August and January.
But over the three and half hours he’s competing for the Seattle Seahawks on Sundays, his ambitiously virtuous platform should be limited to the mundane matter of winning a football game.
It’s a fair compromise, no? As a citizen of a nation conceived by a protest movement strong enough to achieve independence, Bennett gets every right to voice opinions on issues unrelated to football.
But as part of a roster assembled with athletes from coast to coast, from gated-community neighborhoods to neighborhoods where the only gates are in front of windows and doors, Bennett’s national-anthem stance — or lack thereof — is distracting and potentially divisive.
Like baseball dugouts, football sidelines are team-centric sanctuaries where any kind of disruption goes viral on social media. The Seahawks became familiar with the phenomenon a year ago, when star cornerback Richard Sherman had a pair of meltdown tantrums that suggested the Hawks were not so much a team as a collection of splinter factions coexisting tenuously.
While no fellow players criticized Bennett’s refusal to join them for the anthem, I suspect at least a few of them were not thrilled by the snapshot of the towel hanging over his head.
It’s one thing to sit down while everybody else in the stadium is standing, and quite another to sit down in a gesture that amounted to exclamation point.
Make the sit-down statement, OK. Making the sit-down statement with a towel over your head pushes the line, and Bennett’s job is to push another kind of line.
“This is bigger than me,” Bennett said of America’s racially polarized climate. “This is bigger than football. This is bigger than anything we have. This is about people.”
Except for three and a half hours a week, when all it’s about is the guys on your team beating the guys on the other team. There’s a time and place to advance deeply rooted philosophic ideals, and it’s not on the sideline, a few minutes before kickoff.
“People say ‘you’re making money, you’ve got a Nike endorsement, you’ve got some other endorsement, you’re not part of the society,’” Bennett continued. “But you’re part of the society, to show every person that no matter what you believe in, keep fighting for it, keep fighting for equality. Keep fighting for oppressed people, and keep trying to change society.”
Bennett speaks with the passion of an activist who might want to explore a post-football career in politics. His voice is loud and clear, defiantly candid and yet consistently humane. From a distance, it seems to me he’s a five-star prospect.
But once a week, for three and a half hours, nothing should matter more to Michael Bennett than participating in football games and their attendant rituals.
If his fiercest motivation as a Seahawks defensive end is to bring about change in America, a four-letter word comes to mind.