Pro Bowl defensive lineman Michael Bennett spent the last NFL season protesting racial inequality during the national anthem, doing community organizing in his adopted hometown of Seattle, raising funds for his actual hometown, hurricane-struck Houston, traveling to Haiti with teammate Cliff Avril to aid communities still suffering from the 2010 earthquake, raising the issue of human rights in Palestine, and facing down all manner of detractors from the White House to people protesting him outside the Seattle facilities.
He also spent the past year writing a memoir/manifesto with me called Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. And then, he made his third straight Pro Bowl after playing the season with plantar fasciitis. In the season of the activist athlete, it was Bennett as much as anyone who made sure that Colin Kaepernick’s message of peaceful protest against police violence and inequality resonated throughout the year. (The New Yorker certainly noticed that).
Now Bennett has been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, and my feelings are decidedly mixed: overjoyed for Michael, and all misty-eyed for what Seattle is losing.
On the one hand, Michael Bennett is going to the Super Bowl champion team and will be joining perhaps the best defensive line in the entire sport. The locker room contains fearless, politically active players like Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, and Torrey Smith. Michael Bennett will feel right at home. A brash, outspoken player with a wicked sense of humor, who went from being undrafted to a multiple Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ, would fit hand in glove with a city like Philadelphia. It feels right.
On the other side of this, the city of Seattle and Michael Bennett have a special relationship, and seeing that severed provokes its own kind of pain. I saw it—and felt it—when Bennett and I did an event in January of 2017 at Town Hall Seattle. That’s actually where we met, with me interviewing him on stage. The connection between audience and athlete in a non-athletic setting is something I’ve rarely seen. Seeing him speak about issues ranging from athletic activism and racism to sexism, intersectionality, and food justice, and doing it all while making people laugh was truly an experience. He also spoke that night about why he feels the city of Seattle is so special: It is fundamentally an open-minded place, which embraced his family and made him and his wife, Pele, and their three daughters feel at home.
This connection between the player and the city has been earned. As news of the trade spread across social media, a Seattle resident named Ryan Disch-Guzman tweeted to me, “I do outreach work in Seattle housing homeless families. He’s been actively involved in my agency (even was our Santa this year). He’s vital to our community in so many ways, especially because he refuses to be silent. He’s been our voice.”
That refusal to be silent has been seen in Bennett’s stubborn insistence to practice not only philanthropy but activism.
Several months after our event at Town Hall, Michael Bennett refused to be silent when he heard that Seattle resident Charleena Lyles was killed by police. He worked with her family to organize a rally, helped raise money, and made sure that her death did not go unnoticed. He has worked with youth in Seattle prisons and made food justice for underserved communities a central part of his life’s work. Before the opening home game of the Seahawks season, over 100 people in Seattle even did a solidarity rally in front of the stadium for Bennett following an incident with Las Vegas police. I will never forget hearing the head of Seattle’s NAACP saying, “We stand with Michael Bennett because Michael Bennett stands with us.”
I spoke to Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School and an organizer of the Black Lives Matter movement, about the Bennett trade. He said: “It hurts—not only the Seahawks but the overall well-being of our city. It is truly painful to see Michael, my dear friend and a human-rights champion, leave Seattle. When Nikkita Oliver, a black, queer, women, ran for mayor of Seattle, Michael publicly endorsed her campaign and helped spread her message of social justice. When Seattle teachers launched the Black Lives Matter at School movement, Michael was there to speak in support of the students and educators fighting against racism in education. Then when the Las Vegas Police threatened Michael Bennett’s life, the 12s came out to rally and march to the stadium in support of Michael. Michael Bennett has a bond with Seattle that can’t be broken—not even by his trade to Philadelphia. The people of Philly have not only boosted their chances of a Super Bowl repeat, but of their movements for social justice growing.”
That’s the melancholy part. Seattle is losing something very special. With the departure of Bennett, surely to be followed by some of his outspoken teammates, football in Seattle is about to get a lot more ordinary. That’s a damn shame. But even if the Seahawks are in his past, the city of Seattle is not. In a letter to the community, Bennett wrote that the work his foundation is doing in the city isn’t going anywhere. “We are committed to the city, community, and the schools we serve. It’s been a blessing to be able to meet so many great people through our work and share our passion and dedication to better the world and we look forward to meeting so many more of you. We are just getting started. God bless. Love, Black Santa.”