Michael Bennett is a multi-time NFL pro-bowler and Super Bowl champion. He also was one of the first players in 2016 to protest racial inequity and police violence during the national anthem, after Colin Kaepernick. Then, in 2018, he cowrote (along with Dave Zirin) the New York Times best-seller Things that Make White People Uncomfortable. Here, he gives his first extended interview since the protests began following the police killing of George Floyd. This has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the entire interview, check out The Nation’s Edge of Sports podcast here.
DZ: What about the marches in the street? We now recognize that this has been the biggest social movement in terms of sheer numbers in the history of the United States.
MB: We’ve come so far in this world because of technology, but still, the number-one issue with the world is the discomfort and the pain that we all feel, just as human beings. Technology hasn’t really solved that. Things happen faster, but I think when you see everybody in the streets, it’s because they feel that the “American dream” doesn’t represent or include them. It has never represented them in a way that they would have freedom.
It’s a reminder that we have so much further to go. When you think that we’re flying to space, but there’s still people starving and that we’re building new buildings, but there’s still people with no clothes on. There are still people dying from police violence. There’s still a lack of nutrition. There’s still a lack of education.
All these different things that are happening because of the color of somebody’s skin, makes you understand why people are coming out into the streets. It’s because people are coming back to their senses of being connected to humanity again. Have we put income over humanity? Have we put “things” over justice? We think about capitalism. We think about colonialism. We think about materialism. These are all the three things that we’ve been stuck on for a long period of time. I think we’re realizing that we’re really lost. We’ve been out of touch with the importance of the human being, and the importance of bringing people together, the importance of being united. I think that the racial injustice happening in this country is bringing people together in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.
DZ: Has it surprised you to see the number of athletes who’ve involved themselves in the struggle directly, even marching in the streets?
MB: I think it’s a little surprising, and it’s not surprising at the same time. There’ve been athletes speaking out in the recent past, but the number of athletes involved today is a little surprising. We’ve all been so attached to capitalism, and if anyone has suffered from that, it’s athletes because everything we do is from a capitalist mindset, from how we are first treated in the NCAA. We get in there at college and you’re already in the business. If you look at Texas football and the way that people treat high school players. There’s this idea that their body is a part of this capitalism. They’re almost subhuman. It breaks us and slowly take us away from our dignity and our connection to our humanity and our people. Athletes now are breaking away from that.
DZ: You were talking about these issues back in 2016. You were sitting during the anthem then to raise awareness. Do you feel vindicated by everything you are seeing?
MB: Nah, I don’t feel vindicated. I’ve been talking about this since I was a kid. The people before me have talked about it. It’s the history of Emmett Till. It’s the history of lynchings and sundown towns. It’s the amount of racial inequality and the racial disparities in America. The perpetual cycle of being over-policed. The perpetual cycle of race. The perpetual cycle of being held down because of skin color.
Because these issues keep happening, we have this obligation to our history and our humanity to act. We also must act because of our connection to what’s happening in Palestine, the connection to Indigenous people all around the world. It’s the connection to humanity and the intersectionality that leaves me vindicated, because when you stand on the right side of truth, then you don’t have to worry about darkness, because the light is on those issues. One who stands underneath the light is vindicated, anyway it goes.
DZ: How do you feel the NFL has handled this moment?
MB: I think it’s hard to say that you believe in these issues when you still have owners supporting Donald Trump. But I think the NFL is trying to find a common ground where they can find a balance of being a company and also being socially active. The question is whether this is about propaganda or is it about changing the lives of other human beings. I think the jury’s still out on that. We think that we can throw money at it, but this is an issue where, if you throw money at it and we don’t really put our hands in the ground, then it’s going to look like they didn’t have the real intention of changing society.
I think if you look at Roger Goodell, he has kind of missed the point and missed the opportunity. All his actions seem null and void when you look at the Colin Kaepernick situation. We’re thinking, OK if this commitment to justice is true, then why doesn’t Colin Kaepernick have a job? That’s an important part of the equation, but also it’s an important part to help change the policy and push the culture forward.
DZ: One of the fruits of all this protest has been the announcement that the Washington football team will change its name. What’s your reaction to that news that this really might happen?
MB: I’ve been saying this for a long time. This name change is an acknowledgement that there’s a privileged group of people in society who’ve been able to use racial slurs for profitability. I think you look at the Native American people, they’ve been overlooked when we talk about revealing the underprivileged of America. The consciousness of their rights hasn’t been paid attention to. As an intersectional resistance of people of color around the world, it’s important that we recognize the disenchantment there is with that logo and the importance of us coming together and really changing it. I think the NFL is starting to see that the world is not going to accept blatant racism in the way that it used to.
DZ: NFL fans are overwhelmingly white. They’re not exactly great when it comes to change. What message do you have for the NFL fan base out there?
MB: It’s not just our fans. I think it’s important that all people around the world attempt to understand the suffering of the many and try and really grasp the unimaginable tensions that are going to happen if we don’t make change. If we intend to hide, then eventually that mask that we keep carrying around won’t be enough and this social conflict that keeps coming around is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s going to create something that we all don’t want to have. It’s important that if we don’t understand the suffering and injustice of the many, then we won’t have the armor of our morality. We won’t have the armor of the connection of humanity. Society will fall apart because we’ll be so disconnected and will be so unjust and, at the end of the day, there won’t be any more peace. There won’t be any more rationality because, at the end of the day, everybody’s going to continue to fight.
I think there’s a point where we all have to stop being dishonest and come together and realize that if you break down our human DNA, our human philosophies, every human wants the same things. But at some point, we tried to create deception to act like we don’t want that and create a caste system to keep us from achieving the goals that we see as fair. The earth doesn’t need us. The earth continues to grow. The trees continue to grow. If we kill ourselves off, then that’s going to be our own issue.
DZ: That’s real talk right there. Last question for you. Just given everything that’s happened over the last several months, how do you think people should assess you, Colin Kaepernick, and all the work you’ve done over the last few years?
MB: People shouldn’t assess us. People should look at us as part of the whole. We’re just all part of the society that I was talking about. I think there’re so many truth-tellers that have been on this planet before us and put all that work into telling the stories of our history. To realize that we are part of a movement, is to realize that we’re part of history. That’s just the normal thing that everybody should be doing on the planet, being part of change. I think that’s why we’re seeing so many people in the streets, because everybody is being a part of the change. We’re no different. We’re not special in any kind of way. We don’t have any superpowers. All we have is a voice. All we have is a connection to human dignity and the survival of people who look like us and the survival of people who don’t have a voice.