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.”