"We're challenging people spiritually," Bennett said as he was interviewed. The Seahawks have been at the center of the debate over NFL players who sit or kneel during the national anthem.

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The Seahawks have been at the epicenter of the debate swirling around players who choose to sit or kneel during the national anthem. The team’s stars and coach Pete Carroll have been speaking out, and are frequently being interviewed in local and national media.

Two of the more outspoken players, defensive end Michael Bennett and receiver Doug Baldwin, appeared Wednesday night on Anderson Cooper’s CNN town hall to talk about the protests that have engulfed the sport.

The players joined Cooper and his panel via video. Panel members included former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward, filmmaker Spike Lee, former NFL player and veteran Nate Boyer and the Rev. Michel Falkner, a former NFL player.

Cooper opened the interview by asking the Seahawks for reaction to people who have called their actions, which included staying in the locker room for the national anthem on Sunday before a game against the Tennessee Titans, disrespectful to veterans and the country.

Bennett responded, first drawing attention to social injustices, including police brutality and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“I see it as the truth. People don’t really want to face the realities of what’s going on in America,” Bennett said. “The harsh reality of it is that we are black men when we leave the (team) facility. No matter what, that will never change. People have to listen to what we’re talking about.”

Cooper asked Baldwin what he would want President Donald Trump, who said that players who kneel during national anthems in protest should be fired, to understand about them.

“It’s very clear to me that as players we are exercising our First Amendment right,” Baldwin said. “There’s a message that we want to share with the world and we think there’s no better an opportunity than the platform that we have because that’s the biggest platform that we have. It’s not a disrespect. We are honoring those who have sacrificed their lives in order for us to use our First Amendment right.”

Cooper also asked Bennett about an August incident in Las Vegas, in which he said he was detained by police at gunpoint, and whether it impacted his views.

Bennett quickly pivoted.

“It didn’t impact my views. What impacts my views is the mass incarceration of African Americans. Thirty-five percent of the people in jail are African American. Police brutality, that’s what influences me. Colin Kaepernick has influenced me to keep pushing for it, and those are the issues we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the flag, we’re not talking about the military.”

Bennett went on to talk about black veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War who faced discrimination when they returned home.

“It’s still about the rights that people want, the equality that we see that’s fit for every single human,” he said. “I don’t feel like I should have a different conversation with my kids than a white American should have with their kids. I should be able to feel safe when my daughter or son goes out in the streets and feel like they’re going to come home. And when I get pulled over by the police, I shouldn’t feel like I’m gonna die. I should feel like I’m interacting with law enforcement and they respect me as being a human being.”

CNN’s town hall audience applauded.

Seahawks center Justin Britt puts his hand on defensive end Michael Bennett’s shoulder as Bennett sits out the national anthem before Seattle’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs at CenturyLink Field last month.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Seahawks center Justin Britt puts his hand on defensive end Michael Bennett’s shoulder as Bennett sits out the national anthem before Seattle’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs at CenturyLink Field last month. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Cooper then went back to Baldwin, asking him how the protests could lead to actual change, and whether they’ll ever end.

Baldwin first referenced the 1770 Boston Massacre, in which British soldiers gunned down unarmed people. He also invited panelist Hines Ward to visit Seattle to see what Seahawks players do for the community.

“We’ve been saying what the next steps are for a very long time. … No. 1, we want more resources for our law enforcement so they can experience better de-escalation tactics, better policies, better protocols, so that issues and situations like Tamir Rice don’t happen.”

Rice was a 12-year-old black boy who was shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2014. He was carrying a toy Airsoft gun at the time.

Baldwin said he had toy guns growing up, and would play cops and robbers in his neighborhood.

“I can only imagine if I had a friend that got shot and killed in those situations,” he said.

Baldwin also advocated for more education programs for young people and “more resources in our public school system in general.”

“You want to know what’s the next steps. That’s what we’re asking for, and we’ve been saying that since day one,” he said.

Bennett challenged people watching to treat each other better.

“That’s the first step. The first step is to recognize someone and see them as a human being,” he said. “There’s no way that a woman should feel less human than a man. There’s no way that a black person should feel less human than a white man. … The change starts with the heart. This is not a violent protest. This is a peaceful protest. We’re challenging people spiritually, not physically, … to change the culture.”

The protests during the national anthem have been inflamed by Trump’s comments last week. Colin Kaepernick, then a 49ers quarterback, was the first to sit before a game last year. Now hundreds of players and even entire teams have participated, sparking fans to burn jerseys and boycott the NFL altogether.

Bennett has sat before games this season. And he raised his fist into the air after sacking quarterback Brian Hoyer in a game against San Francisco.

On Thursday, a doctored photo of Bennett and some of his teammates was shared widely on social media. The fake photo showed him holding a burning American flag in a locker room. The original photo, with no flag, was taken in 2015 as the defensive end led his teammates in a victory dance, according to BuzzFeed News.