The Pro Bowl defensive end, activist and author discusses a life spent on the margins, his kinship with Colin Kaepernick and finding his voice in Trump’s America
Last September, before a pre-season game for the Seattle Seahawks, Michael Bennett sat down while the Star-Spangled Banner resounded around him. A celebratory playing of the anthem is the precursor to every game in the NFL and Bennett could no longer stand it. He had won the Super Bowl, and twice been a Pro Bowl selection, but distressing images swamped the football.
A few weeks earlier a large far-right group had marched in Charlottesville. They carried burning torches and chanted “You will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil” as they clashed with black and white counter-protesters. The mood turned even uglier the next day, 12 August 2017, when a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting against the Alt-Right. A woman was killed and 19 people were injured.
“Seeing that was so emotional,” Bennett says now, on a rainy morning in Los Angeles, as he explains why he joined Colin Kaepernick in protesting against racism in America by refusing to stand for the anthem. Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, has now been shut out of the NFL. The fate of Kaepernick and the shooting last June of Charleena Lyles, an African American mother of four killed by the police in Seattle, were also in Bennett’s head.
“So many different things were emotional last year,” Bennett says. “But seeing people in Charlottesville trying to make change, and being attacked, was like a photo from Time magazine in 1968. You’re seeing the same thing but the colors are brighter and the shoes are different. But it was the same experience, the same intensity.
“It made me understand that all of us play a part in having a safe world – and made me feel more than ever I needed to make sure that what Colin did was not forgotten but taken further. Colin’s protest might have been about police brutality but for me it was more about safety for all people whatever their gender, race, religion or political belief. I could not stand for the anthem until that safety was secured.”
Bennett also felt compelled to act after Donald Trump initially refused to comment on the Charlottesville attack – and when he did speak the President praised the “many fine people on both sides”. For Bennett, “that was the defining moment. It blew my mind and I still can’t believe he said it. Maya Angelou said, ‘Words are so strong, they stick to things.’ So he should be careful when talking to this next generation.”
Bennett had been moved when meeting the family of Charleena Lyles after her killing. There was widespread belief she was yet another victim of the police using excessive force against African Americans. Lyles had pleaded for help when reporting a burglary but the police shot her because they suspected she carried a knife. “You want to make it better for them,” Bennett says of her children, “but when you are in the room and feel the essence of their suffering in the air it’s hard. There’s no way you can tell them it’s going to be OK. There’s hurt, pain and anger. But they helped me understand we all need to try and help change the country.”
Such turmoil, especially in Charlottesville, evoked the fear Bennett had felt growing up in Texas. When he was 13, in 1998, Bennett was shaken by the death of a middle-aged African American. James Byrd was beaten by three white supremacists who then hooked his body to a pick-up trip and dragged him for three miles to his death.
“He was murdered and dragged in Texas just because he was a black man,” Bennett says, as he looks at the rain drumming against the windows and darkening the streets in LA’s art district. Bennett’s voice makes it sound as if we are back in Texas. “It was one of those moments where you can’t hide from the fact that a man was being hunted as an animal – just because he was black. We were in Houston [and the lynching was in Jasper, 130 miles away]. Even though it was far away it felt so close.”
This is not a typical conversation with a sporting celebrity. In our two hours together Bennett will discuss his recent trade from the Seahawks to the Philadelphia Eagles, the reigning Super Bowl champions, and he will reveal the fear even he, a powerful defensive end, feels every time he steps onto the football field at the age of 32.
The title of his absorbing new book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, seems typical of the combative and humorously provocative character Bennett displays in public. Yet the subject of his book ensures that Bennett is much more serious in person. He is also intent on showing his support for women and fellow African Americans, and his belief in the power of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and explaining how his wife, and the two women who have been his mother, and his three daughters have shaped him.
A week after we meet, Bennett hits trouble when a charge is belatedly laid against him for allegedly pushing a disabled security officer, a 66-year-old woman, at the Super Bowl 15 months ago. It is a charge, I learn later, he denies strenuously. The impact has been painful. Apart from fighting a time-consuming legal battle he considers erroneous, Bennett was forced to cancel a book tour last week which means that all other interviews and publicity have been cancelled. The timing of the charge against him is, at the least, curious.
Yet before we catch up to the present it is striking how Bennett draws a bleak link between the death of Byrd and the even more infamous lynching of Emmett Till – the 14-year-old black boy who was murdered by a mob after a white woman made a false accusation against him in Mississippi in 1955.
“Nothing seems to have changed,” Bennett says. “You think of his death and you imagine a one-time occurrence. But you look at everything that has happened since and you can pick out other incidents – like Michael Brown [an African American teenager shot by a white policeman in Ferguson in 2014]. That showed again what can happen if you’re black and in the wrong part of town in America. You’re seen as a criminal rather than a human being. I don’t want to live like that. I try to interact with everybody as though they are a friend and not a foe.”
How did Byrd’s lynching affect Bennett as a boy? “It was scary as a black kid. You thought: ‘Could it happen to me?’ Every time you heard a pick-up truck, which happens a lot in Texas, you went cold. But my parents did a good job showing the positives of the rest of society. We were taught not to put one brutal act on everybody.”
It is unsurprising Bennett felt affinity with Kaepernick’s peaceful but controversial protests during the anthem – when he sat at first and then took a knee throughout 2016 as he established himself as the 49ers’ starting quarterback. But since March 2017, Kaepernick has remained unsigned as NFL owners sidestep the political attention that surrounds him.
Was Bennett aware of the bold decision Kaepernick had made at the very outset? “Not at first. I talked to Colin a couple of weeks later. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a big step to put that weight on your back.’ I didn’t want to leave him behind. I wanted to be able to be a brother in something so big.”
Kaepernick has suffered as an outcast in sporting, financial and social terms but Bennett believes his friend has won a larger war. “He might not play this year but look at all these young kids taking knees. You see the global reach of his name and what he’s done to different communities. He’s not just a football player anymore– he’s a global leader for change.”
They were in New York together last year and Kaepernick’s influence was obvious. “People reacted to him in a way I’d never seen in regard to an athlete,” Bennett says. “People said to Colin: ‘You gave me hope. You spoke for me. I’m grateful for your sacrifice.’ That was very different to other athletes I’ve been around. With Odell Beckham people are infatuated with the way he caught the ball with one hand or with Russell Wilson they love the way he runs with the ball. This was love and respect for Colin as a man.”
How is Kaepernick, in private, away from his political status and sporting isolation? “It’s lonely and I’m not sure when he took that knee he thought this would happen. So the first thing I ask him when I text is: ‘How are you feeling spiritually and mentally?’ Most of the time he’s feeling really good and he’s still working out hard every single day. I think there’s still opportunity for him to get back into the league. People who have raped women or been accused of murder or domestic abuse are still playing. That’s the hardest thing for me to accept: why doesn’t he have the opportunity?”
Bennett hails 24 September 2017 as a rare day when the NFL expressed solidarity against racism and the verbal attacks Trump has made on its political players. Over 180 players, coaches and even team owners showed some form of protest during the anthem. “It was a big moment. The National Football League don’t take those risks normally. That day they did.
“The NBA has always been more progressive because of the people who are the face of basketball. LeBron James is the leader of US sport not just because of his stature and skill but his wisdom and consciousness. This is the first time in a long time we have an athlete as fluent and well-known as LeBron who has spoken out on the real issues in America. You can’t name another athlete with that type of stature who has taken LeBron’s major risk. Not Tiger Woods, not Tom Brady, not Michael Jordan, not Derek Jeter, not Alex Rodriguez. LeBron, the kid from Akron, is the chosen one on and off the court.”
Towards the end of last season only 2% of NFL players were active each week, like Bennett, in maintaining their protest. “It’s definitely disappointing because you feel we are scared and not taking risks. Turn on the TV and you see 15-year-old kids being kicked off their team because they have taken a political stand. Those kids are so much more courageous than NFL players. We need to remember we only play the sport for so long. Skin colour lasts a lifetime.”
His younger brother Martellus is often scathing of the NFL – even being quoted as suggesting the organization might as well stand for Niggers For Lease. Michael is more diplomatic. “It’s not the NFL’s job to push for change. They are a corporation and big companies don’t push for change. So it’s about the players growing our mindsets and speaking the truth.”
Bennett has often been tested. Last September, after watching Floyd Mayweather fight Conor McGregor, Bennett was caught in a rush in Las Vegas when people mistakenly believed there had been a shooting. As he ran from the scene, Bennett was brought down by the police. He was pinned to the ground, and cuffed, while a policeman put a gun to his head. Bennett was only released when the police realised he was a famous football player rather than a gunman.
“It was a scary moment – but the hardest part was explaining to my daughters that these incidents happen and you need to move forward. How can my daughters have a positive outlook if their dad is scared to talk about what happened to him?”
Bennett now faces a more tangled situation – following his indictment for allegedly pushing a paraplegic woman in his haste to get onto the field to celebrate with Martellus, playing for the New England Patriots, after last year’s Super Bowl in Houston. As Bennett cannot respond for legal reasons his lawyer Rusty Hardin defends him.
“I’m absolutely convinced he did not push the woman,” Hardin tells me. “It’s always possible she’s got Michael confused with somebody else, who might have pushed her, but we won’t know until we see what’s in their file.”
It seems strange that it took eight months for the case to be lodged. “Absolutely,” Hardin says. “The Texans’ organization [which hosted the Super Bowl] didn’t know anything about it.”
Houston’s police chief, Art Acevedo, held a grandstanding press conference, announcing the indictment and accusing Bennett of being “morally bankrupt”. Hardin says: “I consider the chief a friend but he was way out of line. He’s going to be embarrassed about it ultimately.”
A few weeks earlier, Bennett told me about the pain he suffered when not being drafted into the NFL but how, “when I look back, I’m thankful.” Many of his team-mates in the 2014 Super Bowl-winning Seahawks were similarly doubted and politicized. “I had a special bond with those players and [coach] Pete Carroll. Everybody at Seattle had a chip on his shoulder but everybody was of high intellect. Our conversations were different to anything I’ve had in sports. In the past I’d have maybe one teammate who would be conscious. But as a team the Seahawks constantly talked that way.”
The Eagles are also known for their political consciousness and Bennett relishes his imminent move to Philadelphia. But he believes that many players in the NFL and college football suffer from depression. “So many athletes I know are dealing with depression. There’s not really a team to help us understand what we’re feeling – because depression is never talked about in sports. It’s just the ‘D’ word and we often have 22-year-old athletes who, mentally, are like 10-year-olds. We’re often still crawling mentally and we need to stand up and refocus.”
More violent damage frames every NFL game and Bennett knows that severe head trauma is a persistent danger. Does he fear something terrible might happen in a game? “I feel that every single time. I don’t think you can trust any player that say they don’t fear. You fear every single time because you can be badly hurt. Last year two of my teammates cracked vertebrae in their neck. You try to make yourself not scared but as you get older you get more scared.”
Different wounds can heal. The most moving pages in Bennett’s book chart his reconciliation with his birth mother, Caronda, who had had five children by the time she was 22. Michael and Martellus were brought up his father and his new partner whom they regarded as their real mother. Yet Bennett has now transcended his feelings of being abandoned by Cardonda.
“I call it the forgiveness chapter and I talk about sitting at this big table on Mother’s Day with my kids. It’s the first time I can remember spending Mother’s Day with my mom. I couldn’t stop crying because I had always pictured seeing this as a kid. I became a better man by finding a way to forgive my mom and have empathy to understand her story.”
Bennett is a multi-millionaire but his mother has lived a constrained life. When they met again he discovered she has never seen the sea. “I’m having my mom do things she’s never done – as though I was the parent and she was the daughter. But you need that compassion.”
Has this understanding of his mother also softened bitterness towards white people who have caused hurt? “Yeah. You need to embrace the past to see what happened but you also need to move forward and forgive. Most of the people I meet are not the person who caused unhappiness. I would never want to be like the far right or the far left. I don’t feel every police officer or politician is a terrible person. We all need to grow by acknowledging everything that happened but move forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
All the intensity drains away as Bennett picks up his breakfast burrito and carefully removes the onions. “My only intolerance now,” he says with a grin, “is against onions.”
He takes a bite out of his onion-free burrito. “The world is definitely crazy right now,” he says, chewing cheerfully, “but you don’t want your kids to live in fear. You want to take away that fear and help them change the world into a better place – for all of us.”
Now, weeks later, Bennett is no longer free. As innocent as he feels, the maximum sentence, if he is found guilty of intentionally injuring a person over 65, is 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. I asked Hardin for his gut feeling about the case: “It depends on whether we can find sufficient evidence to convince them this woman’s wrong. If that’s the case I’m comfortable it will go away. It’s either going to be dismissed or trialled. But I know Michael didn’t do it. He’s not guilty.”
Bennett waits alongside Colin Kaepernick, on the margins, silenced for now but still leading a protest against injustice. In Los Angeles we also spoke about his greatest fear.
“You’re always nervous,” Bennett said, not knowing then how his book’s publication would be overshadowed. “You’re going to be judged on your beliefs. But the fear of not being heard is ultimately my greatest fear. To explain why we sit during the anthem drove me to write the book. When you’re in this box, as an athlete, you can’t say how you really feel. There are so many things controlling you – the league, your team or the brands you’re associated with. But you want to be heard, regardless of the sport. You just want to be heard as a human being.”
- Michael Bennett’s Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, is published by Haymarket.
• This article was amended on 10 April 2018 to make clear the manner of James Byrd’s death.
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