By Vignesh Panchanatham
“Conversations about change need the viewpoint of those affected by that change,” said Michael Bennett, the newest addition to the New England Patriots defensive line, in a conversation with Professor Eddie Glaude Jr., the chair of the Princeton University Center for African-American Studies, on the evening of March 11.
“When you talk about integration in sports, [people] think there are black players on the field and that’s integration, but in truth, the integration has to happen at the management level, the president, the CEO,” said Bennett, who had played last season with the Philadelphia Eagles before he recently signed with the Super Bowl champion.
Bennett, the co-author of ‘Things That Make White People Uncomfortable,’ a book about his life, talked about how his travels have influenced his racial perspective. His trip to Senegal led him to draw comparisons between the NFL combine and inspecting slaves.
“They used to weigh the slaves and they used to check how big their feet are, [asking] is this the big one, is this the fast one,” said Bennett. “They really pick us from our humanity and put us in an animal’s place. You don’t really think about that when they’re doing the [NFL Combine].”
Bennett teared up while citing his family, particularly his daughters, as the motivating force of his activism.
“There’s this idea that living in this world, there are so many things that are going to box [my daughters] in,” said Bennett. “Firstly, they are women, and then women of color. There’s so many things that are boxing them in, and for me, that’s the reason why I do everything.”
In addition to talking about race in the NFL, Bennett discussed the lack of human connection fans feel towards players.
“The fans don’t really connect with [players] because of the fantasy aspect of the game,” said Bennett. “That’s why I don’t play fantasy football or do any of those kinds of things. I know that none of the injuries that ruin a career are fantasy, it’s reality.”
Bennett noted that many players lose their identity after their careers because they had been cheered on for violence for so long. He praised wives as the champions of the NFL, saying that they are the ones who have to deal with the broken people afterwards.
Bennett, who was a three-time Pro Bowl selection from 2015 to 2017 while playing for the Seattle Seahawks, also during his visit to Princeton announced his intentions when the playing of the National Anthem is held before NFL games.
According to published reports, including from ESPN, Bennett said that he told New England team executives that he would remain in the locker room during the playing of the National Anthem before games.
At the end of the conversation, Bennett took questions from the audience.
When asked about his definition of masculinity in light of the role of violence in football, Bennett remarked on the changing standards of masculinity.
“I think being a man has changed so much,” said Bennett. “I think there was a time when being a man, [meant] you weren’t allowed to cry because you wouldn’t be seen as a strong man. Now, is the moment when you can be vulnerable.”
In response to a question about dealing with the consequences of activism as an athlete, Bennett advocated speaking up and not fearing repercussions.
“I think it comes to the point of what do you want to be remembered for,” said Bennett. “Do you want to be remembered for breaking the scoring record or for having a strong background of things that really matter?”