By Jill Martin, CNN
SEATTLE — Michael Bennett can no longer stay silent. And while he likely doesn’t want to have the same fate as Colin Kaepernick — who is without an NFL team — the Seattle Seahawks defensive end is taking social action.
“I can’t stand for the national anthem,” Bennett, who is 31 and in his ninth NFL season, told CNN on Tuesday. “I can’t stand right now. I’m not going to be standing until I see the equality and freedom.”
Following the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bennett on Sunday took a public stance: He sat on the team’s bench with a towel on his head as the national anthem was played before a preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Carson, California. He later said that what happened in Charlottesville “had a lot to do with” what he did.
Bennett, who grew up in Texas, told CNN that seeing what happened in Charlottesville reminded him of the dragging death of James Byrd, and that it left him in disbelief.
“I grew up around that, listening and remembering those things, and thinking about Charlottesville brought back those memories,” Bennett said. “It actually brought tears to my eyes to see people fighting and having to hate for somebody because of their color. I couldn’t believe it took (President Donald Trump) 48 hours to respond. I thought he would have responded within seconds. And when he came on, I thought he should have handled it just as fast as when he’s tweeting about Russia or something.”
Bennett, whose father served in the Navy, said he isn’t protesting the American flag, nor is his protest against the military.
“I’m actually not dishonoring the contributions that they made, if somebody loses their life,” Bennett said. “I’m actually trying to honor that.”
Bennett also said that he wants more people to join him “and fight for what’s right.”
“At this point, I think if you’re being silent, you’re being dishonest,” Bennett told CNN. “And we can be silenced no more because we’re living in this reality where I can’t hide behind the logo on my helmet. I can’t hide behind the shield. I can’t hide behind the glamor and glitz of the NFL.”
“There’s a reality that I’m a black man in America, and there’s things that are going on pertaining to minorities, pertaining to women, pertaining to kids, pertaining to religion, and we can’t be hiding behind it,” he continued. “We’re fighting for what America is built on: That’s the freedom, the equality, the justice for all and the liberty, and those are the things that I’m actually trying to remember and honor when I sit down for the flag.”
Last year, Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, became a lightning rod when he refused to stand during the national anthem, saying he didn’t want to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
His sitting, which later turned to kneeling, drew fierce criticism but sparked a national movement. Other athletes, from elementary schools to professional leagues, followed his lead.
Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job as an NFL quarterback. But that hasn’t deterred all NFL players from following his lead this season. In addition to Bennett, Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch — a former teammate of Bennett’s — sat during the anthem ahead of Oakland’s preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.
On Tuesday, Bennett spoke at length about Kaepernick.
“I think Colin Kaepernick was one of the best fighters in sports history for … equality in my generation,” Bennett said. “I think people thought that it would go away because he was out of the NFL, but it’s still going on.
“And there’s still a fight going on. There’s still racism going on. There’s still social inequality going on. Just because he’s out of it doesn’t mean the fight is not gone. Because people figure that we’re athletes that we shouldn’t be a part of that message, they think we’re not that black. We’re another category. But I’m in the same category.”
“If I’m not in Seattle, if I’m driving through Idaho or some other place where people don’t know me for being who I am,” he continued, “I could be judged on the color of my skin. … Kaepernick led us to remember that, and I think we can’t let that message die.
“We’ve got to continuously fight the good fight, and that’s the fight for everybody to have equality, everybody to have freedom. I think that fight is something we all should be fighting. I wish more players would stand up and say what they really believe, because this is the truth that we all believe, but I think everybody is fearful of what would happen.
“Nobody wants to be Kaepernick. If silence is what we have to do — I can’t do it anymore.”
Bennett entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Seahawks on April 26, 2009, and later was claimed by Tampa Bay off waivers on Oct. 12, 2009. Bennett, who played for the Buccaneers from 2009-2012, signed with the Seahawks as an unrestricted free agent on March 15, 2013. He re-signed a multi-year contract with the team on March 10, 2014.
During Seattle’s postseason Super Bowl XLVIII championship run, Bennett tied for team lead with 1.5 postseason sacks and had two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Bennett, who attended high school in Houston, played college football at Texas A&M. His brother, Martellus Bennett, is a tight end for the Green Bay Packers.