During the Seattle Seahawks’ 36-20 playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcon, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett sacked Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan. This isn’t newsworthy. Michael Bennett is a multiple Pro Bowl player. But after the sack, Michael Bennett took a moment to bow his head and raise a black-gloved fist. It was an open and conscious tribute to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 1968 Olympians who raised their own fists on the medal stand as a statement of resistance to racism and oppression. For casual football fans, this may have come as a surprise. For the 900 people who crowded the Town Hall Seattle earlier this month, where I interviewed Bennett, this was an on-field expression of the principles Michael Bennett has carried throughout his life. Below is an edited transcript of our interview. The entire, unedited interview is available at the bottom of the page.
Dave Zirin: What do you say to the oft-heard statement that athletes should just shut up and play?
Michael Bennett: Most of the time, people want to consider athletes as just being a part of their sport, but they forget that we are a part of this society and we can’t take ourselves out of it, simply because we make money or have a lot of fans. At the core of everything, we’re still just human beings. But when people want us to just be part of their brands and sell things, it makes you go crazy, because when it’s time to speak out, they won’t let you do it, but when it’s time to sell something, it’s fine. If I see something and I’m a part of it, if it’s an issue and I want to talk about it, then I feel like I’m obligated to speak on it.
This has been the most politicized NFL season ever.
It all started with a knee, too.
It all started with a knee. What was your reaction when you first heard that Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee during the national anthem and then talking to reporters about structural racism in the United States?
I actually know Kaepernick pretty good, so I wasn’t surprised. I was more surprised that Kaepernick got everyone talking. Whether they agreed with it or not, it was a conversation. Everybody has their idea of what America should be like, but few people are willing to actually go out there and stand on that line. He stood on that line, so you got to give him respect. No matter what happened, people wanting to kill him or burn his jerseys, he stayed true to his path. Forever, I’m going to have a lot of respect for him.
The Seahawks decided to stand as a team and link arms. Why?
In the Seahawks locker room we literally talked for hours as a team. It’s hard to get people to agree on something, but at the end of the day, we all agreed on one thing, and I felt like that was a big start for any group of people to actually agree on one thing. We all agreed to lock arms, because we wanted to bring the community together. In our locker room a lot of white players wanted to step up, like [Kicker, Steve] Hauschka. He was one of the main people who wanted to do something. But it took hours, and I mean hours. People had tears, and it made me realize that at the end of the day, no matter what we do on the field, at the core of it all, we all feel the pain that everybody else is feeling. To me, taking that stand as a team was better than the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is great, but when you can get a bunch of people, especially a bunch of men, to be emotional about something… you sit next to this person for four, five years then finally you talk and joke and they open up and it changes your mindset, because it’s like, “Wow, I never knew you felt like that. Dang, we really are brothers!” It’s just one of those things, one of those moments that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.