The highlight of Michael Bennett’s Seahawks season had little to do with football. An hours-long team debate about how to handle the national anthem controversy opened his eyes and heart.
The lowlights were obvious: A knee injury that cost him five games, and a blowout playoff loss in Atlanta, in which he lost control of his temper — again — that ended the season bitterly. So what was the the highlight of DE Michael Bennett’s Seahawks season?
The team meeting when the Seahawks spent hours talking about how to reconcile private anger over racial injustice with a public need to play football well and undistracted.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Bennett said. “To me, it was better than the Super Bowl. It was something about what we did, sitting down (together) . . .
“Being a man in America is evolving. You sit next to someone for four or five years. You talk, you joke, and finally they open up (about social issues), and it changes your mindset. It’s like, ‘Hey, I never knew you felt like that . . . hey, we really are brothers.’ I will always remember that moment for the rest of my life.”
Bennett was speaking Jan. 5 to a nearly full house at Town Hall near downtown Seattle, where he was interviewed by Washington, D.C.-based Dave Zirin, sports writer for The Nation magazine and author of “The Edge of Sports” column and podcast.
The topic: “Collision: Sports and Politics in the U.S.” Bennett, whose social conscience and sense of humor make for an unrivaled personality in the NFL, was up for the joust in a freewheeling give-and-take with Zirin as well as from the audience.
The presidential election, inauguration and protests of President Trump have provided immediate sensory overload over the past several days and weeks. But in September, the sports world and beyond was dominated by the controversy begun by San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick. He sat quietly on the bench during a pre-game anthem to protest the killings of unarmed African-Americans by police.
A national controversy was ignited, with a small number of NFL players joining Kaepernick in the silent protest. Many looked to the trend-setting Seahawks for a response. Before the Miami game on a date, Sept. 11, already fraught with emotion, all Seahawks linked arms — players, coaches, staffers — along the sideline during the anthem, an attempt to signal unity.
The gesture came out of a team meeting earlier that week called by coach Pete Carroll. While the gesture kept the team together and drew the acceptance of many fans, some critics said it was weak because it took no stand against the status quo.
“In our locker room, we talked for hours,” Bennett said. “We took a lot of flak for what we did. Some (in the public) agreed, some didn’t. I tell people that with (my) three kids at the table, and I ask what they want to eat, one says pizza, one says sushi and another says Indian food. It’s hard to get people to agree on something.
“At the end of the day, (Seahawks players) all agreed on something. I thought it was a big start to get any group of people to agree on one thing. We all agreed to lock arms, because we wanted to bring the community together. We felt there was a disconnect between white and black. There were some (white people) who saw things and wanted to change it, and others wanted to ignore it. There were a lot of white players in our locker room who wanted to step up. Stephen Hauschka was one of the main ones. He’s from a different America. We all are, but we’re all American.
“That day we had something we could agree on. It took hours. We had tears. It made me realize no matter how big or bad we are on the field, at the core of it all, we all feel the pain.”
Bennett is friends with Kaepernick, who continued his protest by kneeling at anthems for the rest of the season, despite the high volume of scorn, and some praise, that was hurled his way. After the season, 49ers voted to give him the team’s courage award.
“I talked to Kaep,” Bennett said. “It was a big conversation, because it was with players around the league, talking about what we were going to do. I told him at the end of the day, do what you feel is right.
“We don’t all have to agree on the (gesture). But we do have to agree on a message: A lot of racial injustice is going on in America. As long as that message got out to everybody, that would be great. The media was more about the knee than the message.”
Bennett said while the the anthem kneels spread around the country and to numerous high schools, the trick was finding the will and means to follow up the gesture with actions.
“The easiest way to disable a bunch of people is to discredit them and turn them against each other,” he said. “One of the things we talked about was, ‘Don’t let this be the only thing we do.’ It’s going to be about the organic truth. How are we going to plant the seed in communities?
“For the Seahawks, it’s something we live and breathe. We’re all part of an organization that we’re giving back to. We wanted to apply this to the whole NFL: Now that we have conversation started, what’s the next step? How do we (interest) young people?”
Bennett is an advocate for healthy nutrition, especially among young kids, so he used the topic to analogize about the need for follow-through.
“If all of us take the same leap at the same time, then go eat at McDonalds, what’s that going to do?” he said. “We gotta live it. The hardest thing for people to do is live it. When you say you’re going to do something like taking a knee (for the anthem), they should check our (other behaviors). What are we doing in the community? Are we giving back? What type of man is he? Is he treating his wife and kids the same way?”
Bennett, 31, later unintentionally made his point about degree of difficulty in following words with deeds, in a way embarrassing for him and the team. In the locker room after the 36-20 defeat Jan. 14 in the Georgia Dome, Bennett berated a reporter for asking a legitimate question about the inability of the pass rush to get sufficient pressure on Falcons QB Matt Ryan.
Amid a hail of expletives, he yelled at KCPQ Channel 13 TV reporter Bill Wixey, “What adversity you went through?!” Wixey is a survivor of a 2009 bout with Hodgkins lymphoma.
It wasn’t the first time Bennett has raged post-game against reporters, not to mention in- game against opposing players. Nor was it the first time he said something he shouldn’t have, be it tasteless or rude.
But brashness is part of the culture of the Seahawks, whose coach, Pete Carroll, is himself a voluble free thinker and willing to indulge the players the same liberty, to a degree. Bennett’s Town Hall event pre-dated the Atlanta game, after which Carroll indicated some of his players went too far during the game as well as the season, particularly Bennett and CB Richard Sherman, who had during the season two in-game sideline tirades directed at coaches that upset Carroll.
“We don’t need those distractions,” Carrol said Jan. 16. “It’s hard enough to get it done when everybody is in lock step. We get it. We know what happened. We dealt with it. When it was time to reprimand, we did. When we had to take action, we did.
“I’m disappointed we weren’t able to control it, that guys weren’t able to keep it inside. These guys have been very emotional players, and it’s part of the thing that we like about them. This is a game that calls for guys to play at the edge, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But I think there’s a mistake when they go too far.”
Count Bennett among those who appreciate what Carroll has created for players.
“When you have a coach like Pete . . . he’s been in some of the craziest neighborhoods, like South Central LA, getting players to play for him (at USC),” he said. “He walks into African-American homes and tells the parents, ‘I’m gonna take care of your son,’ he’s built some trust there. He understands people are different.
“(A lot of) people in the NFL, or coaches in general, they want (players and staff) to personify who they are. When you have coaches who are uptight, they want you to do things the way he does — if he wears a suit, you wear a suit. Pete is the opposite. He’s an open-minded person, letting people be their true selves.
“When you have a locker room full of characters — and they are characters — players will speak their minds. A lot of times, (other teams and coaches) want you to be a man on the field, but they don’t want you to be a man off the field.”
That includes the politics of protest. Some fans are among those who wish players would leave social issues alone. They regard sports as an oasis from the mayhem, especially these days. Bennett isn’t buying it.
Zirin asked Bennett why he doesn’t just shut up.
“When people want us to be part of brands just to sell things, it makes me go crazy,” he said. “When it comes time to do things that are great, they won’t let you do it. But when it’s time to sell something, everyone encourages you to do it.
“Most of the time, people want to consider the athletes as just a part of the sport. They forget we’re human beings, part of society. We can’t take ourselves out of it simply because we’ve made money (from sports success), or because we have a lot of fans, or we do nice things. We have families affected by social issues. I think it’s stupid that they want us to be not part of it.
“We have such a great platform to be able to share interests and messages, and help change lives. It’s a responsibility we’re capable of.”
The time to exploit the platform is, for players, short. Bennett’s career of eight years is already twice as long as the NFL average. In December, he signed a three-year extension through the 2020 season that is worth up to $31.5 million and makes him one of the NFL’s top 10 highest-paid defensive linemen.
The ephemeral nature of pro football careers is something to which some fans give little thought, particularly fantasy players who look at players as chattel.
“People (playing fantasy football) and watching on TV say, ‘Get rid of this guy,’” he said. “That guy has kids in school, a wife. Not that fans do it on purpose, but they don’t see the player as a human being. A guy tears his ACL, and people say he’ll be back, but he can get laid off so easily.
“Sometimes, there’s a disconnect between reality and non-reality. They don’t see the injuries, they don’t see the divide in the family. People love players, but they don’t love their injuries. They don’t love what comes with football. They don’t realize (players) make a deal with the devil. When you’re on top, it’s great. When the devil comes calling, people don’t have sympathy for you.”
Who is the devil, Zirin asked.
“The devil is the pain that comes with the injuries,” he said. “The hip and knee surgeries. The possibility that I wake up and think, “Shit, I could lose my brain.
“The word concussion softens what it really is. It’s a traumatic brain injury. People watching at home on Sunday don’t see that part of it. They see the fantasy part of it. A guy might get 300 yards in a game, but it’s a nightmare if you have CTE,” the brain-tissue damage often found in autopsies of former NFL players.
His deal underway with the devil, Bennett, who said if he had a son he would permit him to play football, seeks to do what he can while he can, on and off the field.
“When I die, if the only thing people talk about is the Pro Bowls I went to, which is nice, and the Super Bowl championship, I feel like people are discrediting me as a person,” he said. “I want my legacy to be what I did in the community. How did I help change people’s lives? Was he a man of his word? Did he speak to the kids? That’s the kind of person I want to be remembered as.
“Records are going to be broken. But your legacy can’t be broken.”
Health and football business permitting, the legacy will play out in Seattle, where his like has rarely been seen: A player who brings conscience, controversy, contradiction and compelling play in heaping amounts.