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Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett is the latest NFL player to use the national anthem as an opportunity for a political stand. Bennett remained seated during the anthem before Sunday night’s preseason game against the Chargers, and indicated that race-based riots in Charlottesville, Va. motivated him to take a stance.
“Seeing everything in Virginia and stuff that is going on,” Bennett said after the game, “I just wanted to be able to use my platform to continuously speak out on injustice.”
Bennett is the latest NFL player to sit or kneel during the anthem, a move that has drawn both praise and condemnation. Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick popularized the movement at about this time last year, and many players joined him over the course of the season. Already this year, new Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch has opted not to stand for a preseason-game anthem. (It’s not entirely certain Lynch was lodging a protest, but it’s not certain he wasn’t, either.)
Critics of the anthem stance often equate it with a criticism of the military, but Bennett took pains to note that his own protest didn’t carry that weight. Bennett outlined his reasons for sitting, and they’re worth reading even if—especially if—you disagree with him:
“First of all I want to make sure people understand I love the military—my father was in the military,” Bennett said, per the Seattle Times. “I love hot dogs 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 slander. I just want to see people have the equality that they deserve, and I want to be able to use this platform to continuously push the message and keep finding out how unselfish we can be in society, how we can continuously love one another and understand that people are different. And just because people are different doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t like them. Just because they don’t eat what you eat, just because they don’t pray to the same God you pray to doesn’t mean you should hate them. Whether it is Muslim, whether it is Buddhist, whether it is Christianity, I just want people to understand that no matter what, we need to stay together. It’s more about being a human being at this point.”
Short version: it’s worth remembering that what unites us is greater than what divides us.
The protests draw sharp feelings on both sides of the issue, with those in favor praising the athletes for standing up for those less fortunate than them, as well as America’s right of free expression; and those against condemning the protest as disrespectful or un-American. As with so much else in the hyper-divided America of 2017, there’s an awful lot of volume put forth, but not a lot of listening going on.
But for Bennett, who’s well aware of the backlash he’ll get, the fact that protests make people uncomfortable is the entire point: “I’m challenging you, for people, to be uncomfortable,” he said. “Everybody’s in their comfort zone right now. Become uncomfortable, and go out and see what it’s like in society right now.”
Bennett stressed he wasn’t trying to recruit teammates, and that he didn’t want to be a distraction. “I’ve dedicated my life to this,” he said. “This is what I believe in. This is my purpose. This is what I believe, to change society, to go into communities, doing organic work and just continuing to push the message that things aren’t fair.”
Given the way that Charlottesville unfolded, with one person killed during the clash between Nazi supporters and counter-protesters, Bennett’s decision to protest by sitting during a pregame anthem is, by contrast, both calm and effective at drawing attention.
Choosing to protest altered the entire trajectory of Kaepernick’s career. Kaepernick began his protest while a backup quarterback for San Francisco, and he later opted out of his contract, making him a free agent and thus easier to marginalize. He remains unsigned despite some interest from several teams, including Bennett’s Seahawks, and there’s an argument to be made that it’s his football skills, not his protest, that keep him sidelined.
Bennett and Lynch aren’t as easy to dismiss; both are among the game’s best at their respective positions. Their voices will carry weight and/or distraction, depending on your perspective. And clearly, they’re not going to stop speaking out.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.