The Seahawks’ defensive end has been sitting when the national anthem is played as a way to call attention to the absence of justice for all. That’s Bennett making a unique kind of connection and working for social change.
Michael Bennett is a father, husband and social activist who makes a living as a football player.
“I don’t even like sports,” Bennett told me last weekend. Sports was just something he thought he could do well at, and he was right about that. Playing football allows him to take care of his family and to do philanthropic work that’s meaningful to him. It also gives him a platform for addressing issues that matter, like equality and justice. As this season starts, he’s been sitting when the national anthem is played as a way to call attention to the absence of justice for all.
Bennett has been supportive of former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the anthem throughout last season. Kaepernick has faced heavy criticism, even threats, for his stand against the oppression of people of color. No team signed him this year. Player support for Kaepernick has been growing around the league this year.
After white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a counter-protester was killed, Bennett decided to take a seat.
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Bennett is a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks who is known for connecting with opposing quarterbacks. Connecting, in a different way, is a theme in his life and why his interest in equality includes every group of people.
Last weekend he participated in a dinner that raised money for the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and for the Bennett Foundation. I asked him where his urge to be socially active comes from.
“My mom went to a historically black college, so I grew up going to summer camps and doing a lot of different things in the community as a kid. So I got to see first hand and learn about all the great leaders. My punishment as a kid was reading the encyclopedia.”
His brother, Martellus, a tight end with the Green Bay Packers, is also socially active. The brothers went to high school in Houston and spent summers in the country with their grandparents in Louisiana.
Bennett’s mother is an educator and his father a Navy veteran and school-board member. Bennett said his house is full of literature, much of it biographies, histories and volumes on current issues. He said he learns by listening, reading and traveling. Sharing a meal, too.
“I love food. I think food is something that literally you can have a meal with somebody and get introduced to their culture,” Bennett said. His wife, Pele (they met in high school in Houston), makes great hamachi kama (the fatty, juicy collar of the pacific yellowtail).
His wife’s family has roots in Samoa and family in Hawaii, where the Bennetts spend the offseason.
Bennett said he got the idea to start a foundation about five years ago in Hawaii. “I believe everything that happens has to be organic, and this happened organically.” Bennett was invited to a roundtable meeting to discuss ways of helping kids, particularly changing the way they eat. “I didn’t really get the meeting,” he said. Representatives of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola were at the table.
Bennett asked himself, why not ask the community for its input? Why not talk to the kids? “That’s why I started my foundation.” Its mission statement reads, “Fighting obesity through community, education, activity, and nutrition.”
Bennett eats healthful foods. His personal chef, Steve Lee, catered the Wing Luke dinner. Lee is based in Honolulu but flew in for the event, which was held on Mercer Island at the home of two avid Wing Luke supporters, Tom DeBoer and Durga Doraisamy.
It was a string of connections that made the event possible. Lee got a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from the University of Puget Sound, which is how he became friends with Ted Chen, a middle-school assistant director at Lakeside School in Seattle. Chen’s friend Midori Matsui is on the board of Wing Luke and asked if Chen could ask Lee to ask Bennett to come to a dinner that was being auctioned off as a fundraiser. Bennett agreed if the fundraiser would also benefit his foundation.
Bennett believes everyone everywhere is connected. He loves to travel and learn about the cultures of other countries and said his friends come in all colors and ethnicities.
And because we are all connected, he said that a person who is going to advocate for justice for one group has to champion justice for everyone. He’s taken time to learn about the impact of Manifest Destiny on Native Americans and the issues Hispanics face today. He said he cried when he visited a reservation and learned about youth suicide rates and when he saw hungry children in Haiti.
Beth Takekawa, Wing Luke executive director, thanked Bennett for being present and for his activism. She reminded everyone that the museum’s namesake was not a go-along-to-get-along man. Instead, she said, Luke, the first Asian American on the Seattle City Council, took on segregated housing.
And she told Bennett, “We have your back.”
We are all connected.
Information in this article, originally published Aug. 24, 2017, was corrected Aug. 24, 2017. A previous version of this story misspelled the first name of Martellus Bennett, tight end for the Green Bay Packers.