We're the New Heroes: In conversation with Michael Bennett

(Chase Manze)

(Chase Manze)

NFL fans expect Michael Bennett to be dominating. With 24 sacks over the past two seasons, opposing quarterbacks have come to expect that mere seconds after they snap the ball, they’ll soon find Bennett—donning his now-iconic microscopic shoulder pads—charging at them unimpeded. As Bennett careens into his frantic opponent and pummels them into turf, the audience typically goes wild. After the whistle is blown, he rises, puts his hands behind his head, and gyrates his hips in small circles. Pandemonium. This is the Michael Bennett they know. This is who they came to see.

But when Bennett enters Columbia University’s Faculty House Friday evening for the “Building Critical Sport Communities: New Directions in Sports Scholarship, Journalism, and Activism”, he presents himself slightly differently. He enters the room in a houndstooth coat over a pristine suit and black turtleneck as he makes his way to his seat in front of the audience. He is gregarious, funny, and fascinating. As he discusses his book, “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable,” activism, or intersectional feminism, one almost forgets he is an NFL player. That is, until he mentions his trade to the New England Patriots which happened earlier that day.

In recent years, Bennett’s career as a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl-winner defensive end has yielded some of its prominence to his work advocating against inequality and injustice. His career as a professional athlete provided Bennett with a platform to both speak and give power to the voices of others, while complicating his own identity in the public sphere.

Michael Bennett said that one day he would like to be introduced without his “football player” prefix, or any prefix. He’d simply like to be himself: thoughtful, articulate, and engaged with his community. His activism, like his athleticism, should speak for itself.

The Change-Up sat down with Michael Bennett on Friday to discuss his recent book, his thoughts on Colin Kaepernick and activism within the NFL, and what’s next after football.

Since your time starting in the NFL and obviously over the last few years, there's been this rise of activists like yourself. How do you feel like the league has changed as you have done the work that you've done?

I think everything is perfect timing. I feel like the climate of America and the racial tension, it's at this point—like a climax—and I think Kaepernick was right on that timing where things were just changing and shifting in the culture. And now, with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, all these things that were happening and it was really piling up. It was time for somebody to be able to step up and speak. LeBron and the rest of us had been doing stuff but we weren't heard on the national level yet. We were still saying stuff and people were kind of like, "Okay, skip over it."

But now, with that stuff and when things started happening with Kaepernick, the platform started to like, slowly, it became an American story. It wasn't just like an athletics story. We weren't being covered just by ESPN, we weren't just being covered on NFL Network. We started to gain interest from the Times magazine, New York Times, CNN. Stuff like that where it was becoming a real issue.

So I think the NFL had to take a step back like, "Okay, this is a serious issue because, our players are saying this and our players are feeling this way and this is the reality of who they are as human beings and who they are as citizens of America.

They had to start listening to us. And that changed everything. They had to start to respect our opinions because our voice was started to be magnified. And it wasn't just our voice and how we were speaking, it was the young kids who started taking knees in all these different ways. I think it was all just the timing of everything.

What do you think about Kaepernick settling with the NFL recently? How do you think that impacts things?

It's almost like we became a cult. We wanted to see this guy at this moment of things that were happening, and be like, "Show us the truth! Show us the light!"

I've got mixed feelings. But I think it's a great deal. I think it's an opportunity. I think that most of the time in society, the man never wins. The system always wins. So it feels like a win for society. But then there's the side of it where it kind of settles, and we don't get to find out the truth, the different variables and the different things that were happening and the things that we wanted to see uncovered because we were so gung-ho.

It's almost like we became a cult. We wanted to see this guy at this moment of things that were happening, and be like, "Show us the truth! Show us the light!" And then, as soon as the light wasn't going, somebody was like, "Uh, next time!" like the sequel to a movie. Have you ever seen Interstellar? It's like, all these things are happening and I'm just like, I've gotta wait seven years to find out.

So we didn't get to find out. It's just one of those things that people were supporting and they really wanted it to take down the system. Because, [even with] everything that ever happened, we never got to take down the system. We see the things that are happening with the police brutality. We see things that happen in mass incarceration. And we point them out, but the system is so big that we can never beat. And I think this is a system that people feel like it was a money system, and that we would be able to beat it.

The introduction to your book is written by your brother Martellus. Can you talk a little about that introduction, and specifically how you can be the role model now for young black kids who are growing up and looking up to yourself, Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick, these kinds of athletes who are activists?

I think it's always touching when family members share their feelings about you, and then to see them in a book. Every time I read it I get tears because it's so passionate, and the way that my brother puts the words together, I hear the words and I feel the words and it's almost like I see the words. They're very visual to me.

When he's talking about these athletes and not actually ever seeing heroes that look like us. There's something about that where, when you see things that are heroes and they're always white—superman, batman, everybody—it's just always white. So the mindset becomes, these must be our heroes.

When it comes to reality, these athletes are really the heroes that it comes to, because they're the people that [young black kids] are gonna be. It's not Batman, Superman. We want to be LeBron James. And I think for my brother to put it in a way and on the book like that and for people to first read that, it sets the tone for who I am as a person, and how he sees me, and how society sees a lot of us people.

Obviously the news that you’re going to be headed to the Patriots is very new, any thoughts on that or initial feelings?

I feel nomadic. I feel like the Berber tribe in Morocco: I’m pitching tent anywhere.

I’m still trying to get everything together. It’s a little bit overwhelming because there are so many different moving parts. The family, everything is just, I’ve been so stationary and all of the sudden it’s just like, I feel nomadic. I feel like the Berber tribe in Morocco: I’m pitching tent anywhere. I feel it’s an iconic person I get to play with, Tom Brady, and the rest of the organization. So I guess I can look forward to that, it’s just a little bit different. I wasn’t, I don’t really know if I was really ready for all of that.

Can you talk a little bit about your time in Philadelphia? There’s a lot of people, Chris Long, Malcolm Jenkins, who have spoken up and been kind of activist-y kind of people in the past. In a locker room like that, what kinds of conversations are you having with those kinds of people?

I think Seattle was, I even think Seattle was more people [who were activists]. I think I had the chance to work with Doug Baldwin, Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril, all these different guys. I think this was the same, kind of the same vibe. We’re in the moment where we’re trying to figure out where we are in history and where we are as human beings and how to navigate through all the things that are happening. How do you balance professionalism and still society? That’s the kind of conversation we had. How do we use our voice to amplify it at a high level? And I think with those guys, it was always about that. It just became about everyone was doing so much that it just, it was just fun.

Because Chris is doing so many crazy things and then Malcolm is just always pushing the envelope to like, “what is the new way of changing?” For me, I’ve heard so many bad things about Malcolm because in movements, there's always this Messiah-ism type thing going on where we focus on one person and we are like, “if you’re not doing it like Colin’s way, then you’re not doing it the right way.”

And I feel like there is enough space for everybody to have a voice and use it. For me, whenever I, with Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins, when he goes at Malcolm Jenkins like that, he just kind of tears down the movement. It just kind of puts you in the 60s where it’s like the black panthers or something.

There’s enough for us to not think that there is one single way of thinking about saving ourselves.

But no, there is enough space for everybody. There’s enough for us to not think that there is one single way of thinking about saving ourselves. It’s more “how can we combine our efforts? How can we collaborate to make it better?” And I think that being here I found out that’s how Malcolm thinks and I think I love that about him.

When football ends, what are your goals in terms of what you want to do to continue this work? Are you interested in maybe writing more, pursuing other organizations or things like that?

Actually my goal is to, I want to come back to go to school. I’d really like to go to Columbia or a school in the East Coast, maybe Howard. Something where I can go and study African American Studies and become more academic about it. Where I can get to a level, more of the history. I understand history, but I also want to get to that place where I even understand the whole construct of it all and I think, I feel like now when I was in college I was playing sports and it was like this, there wasn’t space to really ahhh.

There’s a lot of variables that come with playing injured. I almost felt like I had to choose, and now I’m at that point that I’m like now I just focus on this in my life. How do I change and really just push sports and activism and really make a real platform because there’s never really been a real platform. Everybody is just kind of in different places, there have never been people connecting.

You mentioned your education and you mentioned in your book that you wanted to study sociology. Can you talk a little about your interest in sociology and how it has  helped you?

I was thinking about people and populations and how things work. One of my favorite classes was a class about minority sociology where we were learning about people and race and gender and all these different things, and for me that was kind of, not the start of it because my mom was a teacher with a masters degree and my dad.

I spent a lot of time at Grambling University growing up so I always had this idea about people and what it was to be a black man or a black woman in America. The history, the historical figures. I grew up getting the chance to go chill with Eddie Robinson for football camps and stuff like that. I was always around that so in college, sociology gave me the opportunity to dig deeper in to those different things, doing case studies and understanding, it was fun.

Christopher Lopez contributed reporting to this article.