Ben­nett speak­ing up, tak­ing a stand

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - DERON SNY­DER

ASeat­tle Sea­hawks de­fen­sive end, No. 72, was sur­rounded by a small gath­er­ing at Bus­boys & Po­ets on 14th Street last week. His size made him stand out in the the­ater room, a few min­utes be­fore the doors opened and 200 folks piled in for “Si­lenced No More: Michael Ben­nett on Ac­tivism and Pro Sports.”

“I’m here be­cause a bunch of friends lo­cally asked me to come and speak about some things I’ve been do­ing,” Ben­nett told me. “They want me to talk about what ath­letes have been do­ing and what’s go­ing in Amer­ica right now.”

Star ath­letes typ­i­cally don’t in­ter­rupt their off­sea­son to catch a flight and speak at a lec­ture. Jet off for a com­mer­cial shoot? Sure. Fly away for a va­ca­tion? Ab­so­lutely. Hop a plane for busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. Yes.

But Ben­nett, a Su­per Bowl champ and two-time Pro Bowler, is far from your or­di­nary ath­lete. He puts his fam­ily and com­mu­nity — lo­cal, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional — ahead of his in­dus­try. That makes speak­ing out on con­di­tions and cur­rent events only nat­u­ral for him.

“I have kids,” he told me. “I want them to look back and say, ‘Daddy was a part of change. He just didn’t sit back and play sports. He re­ally tried to help peo­ple.’ That’s my main goal.”

Of course, that makes him a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure to those who are un­com­fort­able when ath­letes step out­side the lines and speak about is­sues like hu­man rights and so­cial jus­tice.

Ben­nett, who publicly sup­ports the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, ruf­fled feathers in Jan­uary when he backed out of an Is­raeli govern­ment-spon­sored trip to Is­rael. He had learned too much about the Pales­tinian con­flict af­ter ac­cept­ing the in­vi­ta­tion and ex­plained his re­ver­sal in a let­ter that opened with “Hello World.”

He was un­aware that the Is­raeli govern­ment wanted him and the other in­vited play­ers to serve as “am­bas­sadors of good will. I will not be used in such a man­ner,” he wrote. “I want to be a voice for the voice­less (Pales­tinian peo­ple) and I can­not do that by go­ing on this kind of trip to Is­rael.

“I know this will anger some peo­ple and in­spire oth­ers,” he wrote. “But please know that I did this not for you, but to be in ac­cord with my own values and my own con­scious. 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.”

The lec­ture was mod­er­ated by Dave Zirin, sports edi­tor of The Na­tion, and Noura Erakat, a Pales­tinian-Amer­i­can scholar, hu­man rights at­tor­ney and Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity pro­fes­sor. Erakat was among many peo­ple who asked Ben­nett to re­con­sider the trip. She said his de­ci­sion re­ju­ve­nated her be­cause he’s a man of con­scious and his par­tic­i­pa­tion would’ve stung.

Erakat has worked on so­cial causes with mu­si­cians and ac­tors, but Ben­nett is the first ath­lete. She finds him in­spir­ing and hopes he can en­cour­age oth­ers, like the five NFL play­ers who fol­lowed his lead and pulled out of the trip.

“Our pro­fes­sional sports in­dus­try has com­mod­i­fied our most ex­cep­tional ath­letes,” Erakat told the crowd. “They’re treated as en­ter­tain­ers who owe us some­thing, not com­plete hu­man be­ings in the fab­ric of our so­ci­ety with their own so­cial en­twine­ments. This has been demon­strated in the pun­ish­ment of Muham­mad Ali, John Car­los, Mah­moud Ab­dul-Rauf and pos­si­bly Colin Kaeper­nick.”

Why is it that ac­tors and mu­si­cians can be ac­tivists but ath­letes are frowned upon for ex­er­cis­ing the same rights?

Yes, many folks look at sports as an es­cape and don’t want to be re­minded of real-life strug­gles that might or might not res­onate with them. But folks go to movies and lis­ten to songs for es­cape, too, usu­ally re­tain­ing the abil­ity to en­joy per­form­ers’ work even if dis­agree­ing with their stances.

Ben­nett’s po­si­tion is sim­ple and ad­mirable: He wants to aid fel­low hu­man be­ings. He’s donat­ing all his en­dorse­ment money and half of the pro­ceeds from his jer­sey sales to fund S.T.E.A.M. pro­grams (sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing, arts and math­e­mat­ics) for un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren. He’s also fund­ing in­ner-city gar­den projects and — in­spired by his three young daugh­ters — in­vest­ing in ini­tia­tives for women.

Zirin thinks Ben­nett rep­re­sents a shift among mod­ern ath­letes in the age of so­cial me­dia, men­tion­ing ac­tions by Kaeper­nick and play­ers who sup­ported him; the U.S. women’s hockey and soc­cer teams; and Wis­con­sin bas­ket­ball stars Nigel Hayes and Bron­son Koenig.

“I think it’s ‘a mo­ment,’” Zirin said af­ter­ward. “It’s not quite ‘a move­ment’ yet. But the mo­ment is real.”

Ben­nett said he al­ways planned to use his plat­form for good if he ob­tained one. He’s knows there’s dan­ger in be­ing out­spo­ken, es­pe­cially in a league fo­cused on its fat bot­tom line. “You have to be care­ful,” he told the au­di­ence. “Be­cause if it comes to stop­ping the rev­enue, you can pos­si­bly get in trou­ble.”

The hope is noth­ing hap­pens to threaten to his liveli­hood, a pos­si­bil­ity that Kaeper­nick might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Ben­nett is proud of the quar­ter­back for tak­ing a knee tak­ing ac­tion, donat­ing and rais­ing money for just causes. It’s a model to fol­low.

“I’m grow­ing as a hu­man be­ing and as a man,” Ben­nett said. “As I read, I’m go­ing to chal­lenge what’s go­ing on, chal­lenge op­pres­sion, chal­lenge pol­i­tics and chal­lenge sex­ism.

“Now that your eyes are open, it just changes you,” he said. “Once you’re awake, it’s hard to go back to sleep when you’re in this world.”

That’s a great mes­sage for ath­letes and non-ath­letes alike: Wake up and stay woke.

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