The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett’s has announced that he will no longer join an NFL delegation to Israel. His decision has set off a media frenzy and appears to have inspired at least one other player to walk away from the tour as well.
The move is not surprising, considering Michael Bennett’s commitment to social justice and black empowerment. As he says, “I’ll be done playing football some day, but I’ll be black forever.” He counts people like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Angela Davis among his heroes. He sees himself as someone trying to build upon their history of both athlete activism and informed resistance.
I interviewed Bennett last month in Seattle, and he spoke about the importance of leaving a legacy beyond sports, saying,
I feel like if I die and the only thing that people talk about is the Pro Bowls the Super Bowl championship, I feel that people are discrediting me as a person, because at the end of the day, I want my legacy to be what I did in the community. What did people see? Was he a man of his word? Was he the type of man that when he said he did something, he’d go out and do it? That’s the kind of person I want to be remembered as. To me, records are going to be broken, but the legacy you leave, it can’t be broken because it’s the truth, it’s the foundation, it’s me.
When offered a dream opportunity to take a free trip to Israel with an NFL delegation that would include his close friend on the Seahawks Cliff Avril, Bennett planned to attend. Then he saw an article in the Times of Israel that described the real purpose of this visit: to go on a highly organized government-designed trip that would isolate him from the Palestinian people, and turn him into a “goodwill ambassador” to “fight perceptions” of the country. Then he read this open letter in The Nation asking players to boycott the trip, signed by Dr. John Carlos, Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, and Danny Glover. At the same time, Israel’s parliament voted to approve a bill that retroactively “legalizes” illegal Jewish outposts to be built on privately owned Palestinian land. It is such an egregious land grab that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said, “It will cause Israel to be seen as an apartheid state.”
Michael Bennett changed his mind and wrote the following:
I was scheduled to make a visit to Israel with fellow NFL players. I was excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes. I was not aware, until reading this article about the trip in the Times of Israel, that my itinerary was being constructed by the Israeli government for the purposes of making me, in the words of a government official an “influencer and opinion-former” who would then be “an ambassador of good will.” I will not be used in such a matter. When I do go to Israel—and I do plan to go—it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives.
One of my heroes has always been Muhammad Ali. I know that Ali always stood strongly with the Palestinian people, visiting refugee camps, going to rallies, and always willing to be a “voice for the voiceless.” I want to be a “voice for the voiceless,” and I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel.
I know that this will anger some people and inspire others. But please know that I did this not for you, but to be in accord with my own values and my own conscience. Like 1968 Olympian John Carlos always says, “There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.” Well, I’m in.
After the statement went public, it was retweeted by several NFL players, including Bennett’s brother, New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, as well as another person who planned to go on the delegation, Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, who attached the message, “Couldn’t have said it any better. I’m in!” seeming to imply that that he will not be attending as well. But the most striking response to Bennett’s letter, in addition to the media attention, has been the outpouring of support on social media. Perhaps the ultimate comment came from Bennett’s hero John Carlos, who read his open letter and said, “I’m flattered this young man quoted me and I’m overwhelmed that seeds I may have planted almost 50 years ago have played even a small part in developing such a terrific person of principle. It’s true. You are either in or your out. And Michael Bennett is in.”