• The Star Staff

Michael Bennett, a protest pioneer, retires from the NFL

In 2017 Michael Bennett was among the players who protested during the national anthem.

By Ken Belson

Michael Bennett, the standout NFL defensive end who spoke out forcefully against racial injustice during his career, said he was retiring after an 11-year career, primarily with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks.

“Retiring feels a little like death of self, but I’m looking forward to the rebirth — the opportunity to reimagine my purpose,” Bennett, 34, wrote on Instagram. “I have never been more at peace in my life.”

Bennett, like his younger brother, Martellus, a tight end who last played in the NFL in the 2017 season, never shied away from sharing his opinions. In 2017, after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Bennett was part of a group of players who began protesting during the playing of the national anthem to raise awareness of police brutality and other forms of injustice. But while most players knelt or raised a fist during the anthem, Bennett drew extra attention because he chose to sit on the bench.

He was later joined by a white teammate, offensive lineman Justin Britt, who put his hand on Bennett’s shoulder in solidarity.

Doug Baldwin, a Seahawks wide receiver who retired after the 2018 season, said Bennett was never afraid to share his opinions, often backed by data, in and out of the locker room. But he was also willing to listen to others who did not agree with him. At the same time, he followed unconventional paths, as when he chose to sit during the national anthem.

“Obviously, he cared deeply about the same issues as we did, but he had his own way of fighting and speaking out,” Baldwin said. “He was never afraid to express himself. Whether it was trying to bring people together or being divisive, his intention was to get people to look outside themselves.”

Bennett’s protests were informed by his personal experience. In August 2017, Bennett was outside a Las Vegas nightclub when police were investigating a report of shots fired. Two officers approached Bennett and eventually handcuffed him at gunpoint. Bennett later said the officers had racially profiled him and used excessive force, including an officer kneeling on his back. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department denied that its force was unwarranted.

In 2018, Bennett was indicted on a felony charge, accused of assaulting an elderly security guard when he rushed the field after the 2017 Super Bowl, which Martellus won as a member of the New England Patriots. The charge was dismissed in 2019 because of a lack of evidence.

He shared his views about racial inequality, police violence and athletes’ roles in protest movements in “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable,” a book he co-wrote that was published in 2018.

In college, he said he was astonished at how white coaches tried to mold Black players in their image.

Bennett said about his experience at Texas A&M: “We had white coaches, and they wanted the Black players to be the embodiment of who they were. They would tell us to wear our pants and shoes a certain way; this is what it meant to ‘be a man.’”

He called out the NFL for effectively banning Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 but who has gone unsigned since becoming a free agent after that season.

“The NFL holds up as leaders players who have been accused of rape, violence against women, and even manslaughter,” Bennett wrote. “They’re right in front of us, playing quarterback and winning Super Bowl MVP awards. I’d much rather call a leader someone who helps his community.”

Bennett was signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He was waived early that season and picked up by the Buccaneers, who moved him to defensive tackle.

After four seasons at Tampa Bay, the Seahawks signed him again, this time to a one-year contract in 2013. He joined what was already the league’s most dominant defense, helping the Seahawks win their only Super Bowl championship that season in large part because of a strong pass rush and defensive backfield.

Bennett was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl three times in his career. In 2018, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he played one season. In 2019, he played with the Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys. In October, the Patriots suspended him for one week, citing conduct detrimental to the team; Bennett said it was after a philosophical disagreement with his position coach.