CARSON, Calif.— Michael Bennett knows that his job as a professional athlete gives him a significant platform, so when the Seahawks defensive end sees injustice in the world, he feels it is his duty to use that platform to make a difference. As a result, Bennett was seated on a bench Sunday during the National Anthem prior to his team's preseason opener against the Los Angles Chargers.
"With everything that's been going on the last couple of months, and especially after the last couple of days seeing what's going on in Virginia, and earlier today in Seattle," Bennett said when asked about his decision to sit. "I just wanted to be able to use my platform to be able to continuously speak on injustice."
Bennett, whose father served in the Navy, was quick to point out that his protest was not anti-military or anti-American, but rather anti-intolerance and anti-injustice.
"First of all, I want to make sure people understand, I love the military," Bennett said. "My father was in the military. I love hotdogs like any other American, I love football like any other American, but I don't love segregation, I don't love riots, I don't love oppression, I don't love gender slandering. I just want to see people have the equality that they deserve. I want to be able to use this platform to continuously push the message of that—keep journeying out and keep finding out how unselfish can we be as a society. How can we continuously love one another and understand that people are different? And just because they're different doesn't mean you shouldn't like them. Just because they don't smell the way you smell, just because they don't eat what you eat, just because they don't pray to the same God you pray to, that doesn't mean you should hate them. Whether it's Muslim, whether it's Buddhist, whether it's Christianity, whatever it is, I just want people to understand that no matter what, we're in this thing together. It's more about being a human being at this point."
Bennett also made it clear that the protest was his own decision, and one he doesn't want to become an issue for the team.
"I just want to do my own thing," he said. "I don't want to be a distraction to my teammates, don't want to be a distraction to the organization or Pete (Carroll) or anybody on my team. I'm just doing what I feel is right, and I dedicate my life to doing this. This is my purpose, this is what I believe in, changing society, going into communities, doing organic work and continue to push the message that things aren't fair."
Bennett also understands there might be backlash, but he's willing to, in his words, make himself vulnerable to stand up for what he believes in.
"Of course I'm going to face backlash," he said. "This is bigger than me, this is bigger than football. This is about people, this is about bringing opportunities to people, giving people equality. This is bigger than a sport. At the end of the day, you can't take your accolades with you, but what you can do is leave a legacy that you can give kids to seize to be able to inspire. I don't look at myself as a role model, I look at myself as trying to inspire young children and young people of different genders, whatever they are, to want to change their environment and continuously push whatever they think is right.
"At this point, it's about what you believe in, and if you believe something so strongly and you're out in the community—I've done work in Haiti, I've done work on Native (American) reservations, detention centers, jails, and I've seen the struggles people are going through right now—it's real out there. We've got to continue to let people know that we're real too. At the end of the day, I'm being vulnerable right now. There's a whole bunch of people right now sitting at home judging me, but they'll never get to this point where they can be vulnerable. I let people attack me because they don't believe what I believe in, but at the end of the day I'm being vulnerable to show every person, no matter what you believe in, keep fighting for it. Keep fighting for equality, keep fighting oppression, keep trying to change society, that's all it's really about."
Bennett's hope is that by drawing attention to himself and sharing his message, he can challenge others to, in their own ways, make their communities better.
"I have this platform and I want to be able to use it," he said. "I want to continue to let other athletes know that if you believe that things are going wrong and you want to speak out on it, it's OK... Whatever you can do to get yourself to become selfless in this community is what you need to do as a person. I'm challenging everybody to do that. I'm challenging people to be uncomfortable. Everybody's in their comfort zone right now—become uncomfortable and go out and see what it's like out there in society right now.
"I hope I can activate everybody to go out in to their communities and push helping each other, push sitting down with somebody who's the opposite sex, sitting down with somebody that's the opposite race, different religion—understand that people are different and go out and join the community and try to change your society. Change what you're a part of. If you don't like it, keep changing it. Let kids know they've got power. Just because you're an athlete and people say, 'Hey, you're making money, you have this Nike endorsement, you have this endorsement, you're not a part of that society.' At the end of the day, you are a part of that society. No matter where I go, I'm still a black man, and I can't get away from that. I can't get away from the past transgressions of America, what's happened, but what I want to do is be a part of the change."
Game action photos from the Seahawks' 48-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1 of the 2017 preseason.