Says this great profile in the New Yorker:
When “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before the first game of the 2018 NFL season, between the Atlanta Falcons and the Eagles, the defending champions, in September, Michael Bennett knew that he was being watched. Football fans, and sportswriters, were waiting to see if the narrative of another year would be dominated not by division rivalries but by the debate over players who protested racial inequality during the national anthem.
Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who had begun the protests, in 2016, was the star of a new Nike commercial that was set to air during the game. (The tagline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”) But Kaepernick had been out of the league since the end of that season—he has sued the owners, alleging collusion—and, Nike campaign aside, rarely spoke publicly. Bennett, a defensive end for the Eagles, was one of the most recognizable players to keep the protests going in his absence.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Bennett is naturally funny, and a little eccentric, with a gift for provocation. He used to do a little jig, inspired by pro wrestling, each time he sacked a quarterback; he once described it as “two angels dancing while chocolate is coming from the heavens on a nice Sunday morning.” His equally gregarious younger brother, Martellus, was a tight end, until he retired earlier this year, and they were an unmistakable pair: the outrageous, outspoken Bennett brothers.
Bennett has always been candid about politics. In 2015, after his teammate Richard Sherman critiqued the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bennett, unprompted, politely detailed his disagreements with Sherman at a press conference the next day. He wrote a statement expressing solidarity with the women’s strike on International Women’s Day; he is an avid reader of the academic and activist Angela Davis. But, in the year since he began protesting, in August, 2017, the political has become increasingly personal, and he has been reminded what it can mean to be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. That month, he was handcuffed in Las Vegas by police officers with weapons drawn, during what the officers believed was an active-shooter situation—an instance, Bennett maintains, of racial profiling. A few weeks later, a doctored photograph that had Bennett dancing in the Seahawks’ locker room with a burning American flag went viral. In March, he was indicted on a felony charge for allegedly pushing an elderly woman as he made his way onto the field after the 2017 Super Bowl, an accusation that he emphatically denies. In April, he published a memoir, called “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable,” which was blurbed by Bernie Sanders, among others. These days, Bennett sits at the nexus of several narratives surrounding the N.F.L. What a fan thinks of him probably depends on which of those narratives that fan is inclined to credit.
On opening night, Bennett knew that many people wanted to move on from the protests. He was tired, himself, of the endless accounting of who was taking a knee and who wasn’t, and eager to focus on the social-justice work that he and others were doing, rather than on the gestures that they were or weren’t making. But he also thought that silence had a corrosive effect, that it encouraged pride and toughness above empathy and vulnerability, contributing to the problem of “toxic masculinity,” as he put it to me before the season began, using a phrase that has come into vogue in some places but not, for the most part, in N.F.L. locker rooms. Bennett, who has lively, wide-set eyes and an unruly beard, can rapidly shift in conversation from careful deliberation to surprising bluntness, or to comedy. (He answered one of my phone calls with a falsetto squeal: “Don’t you call my husband!”) The expectation that players should be merely entertainers was stunting, he said. “Then we wonder why guys commit suicide, or guys do different things, because they just don’t know how to find a better way to outlet their emotions,” he went on. “They don’t know how to communicate.”
How could he communicate that? How could he do it while playing a game where the point was to dominate, violently, the other side? How could he do it with the platform he had, in the space of a song?
Bennett had been traded to the Eagles by the Seattle Seahawks in the off-season, and he was still trying, with occasional awkwardness, to figure out his role with Philadelphia. But he felt lucky in his new teammates. One of them, the safety Malcolm Jenkins, is a co-founder of the Players Coalition, which was created, in 2017, in order to harness burgeoning activism among N.F.L. players. When the anthem was performed during the previous season, Jenkins had raised his fist while a white teammate, the defensive end Chris Long, put his arm around Jenkins’s shoulder. Jenkins had stopped doing this late last year, after the N.F.L. committed eighty-nine million dollars toward racial-justice causes. But Jenkins had protested again before the first preseason game, alongside Long and the defensive back De’Vante Bausby, after the league attempted to implement a rule that would have required players who were on the field for the anthem to stand. Assuming that Jenkins would raise his fist, Bennett decided that he would stand behind Jenkins and Long, and raise his fist, too. The gesture would signal solidarity both with his new team and with the movement.
He hadn’t told them about it, though. When the anthem began to play, he looked over and saw that Jenkins was standing with his hands behind his back, and that Long had a hand on his heart. Jenkins had not resumed his protest. (It hadn’t been an easy decision. “We don’t have a handbook,” Jenkins told me.) Bennett was thrown. “I was, like, ‘Wait,’ ” he told me later. “ ‘Y’all not doing anything?’ ” No one from either team was protesting. Bennett, realizing this, lowered his head, tugged awkwardly on the straps on his gloves. He turned away from the field and began to pace.
The grass was still wet from a storm that had just blown through. As the anthem neared its final crescendo, Bennett stopped, sat down on the end of the Eagles’ bench, and tied his shoe. The season had begun.