The commissioner of the NFL issued a statement of support for Michael Bennett late on Wednesday, and in his statement there’s a distinct echo of the most vilified man in his league.
The sports world was rattled on Wednesday as Bennett, one of the more respected players in football, wrote a frightening social media post about being driven to the ground by police in Las Vegas after gunshots were heard on the night of the Mayweather-McGregor fight. The Seahawks star insisted that he was singled out for the color of his skin, and threatened with a gun.
“I felt helpless as I lay there on the ground handcuffed facing the real-life threat of being killed,” Bennett wrote, “All I could think of was ‘I’m going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.’ ”
It was a real-life example of what many African-Americans feel: the fear of being treated with lethal force by a police officer. And soon after skeptics on social media started questioning his story, video emerged of Bennett, prone and cuffed, asking an officer what he had done wrong.
Later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a supportive statement: “Michael Bennett represents the best of the NFL – a leader on his team and in his community. Our foremost concern is the welfare of Michael and his family. While we understand the Las Vegas police department will address this later in the evening, the issues Michael has been raising deserve serious attention from all of our leaders in every community.”
The issues Bennett has been raising are also the issues Colin Kaepernick has been raising for more than a year: police behavior where minorities are involved, and accountability for that behavior. Kaepernick’s tone has not shifted from last year. But here, the commissioner’s tone has.
This is what Goodell said in his first public comments last year about Kaepernick’s anthem protest:
“I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don’t live in a perfect society. We live in an imperfect society. On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that. I think it’s important to have respect for our country, for our flag, for the people who make our country better; for law enforcement, and for our military who are out fighting for our freedoms and our ideals. These are all important things for us, and that moment is a very important moment. So, I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing. We encourage our players to be respectful in that time and I like to think of it as a moment where we can unite as a country. And that’s what we need more, and that’s what I think football does – it unites our country. So I would like to see us focusing on our similarities and trying to bring people together.”
There was no direct acknowledgment of the issues Kaepernick was raising. There was no acknowledgement of a problem that affects a lot of players in his league and their families and friends. He instead focused on patriotism and the flag, telling players to be “be respectful.” Unite, don’t divide.
Kaepernick’s intention was not to divide. He wanted to point out that black people are fearful of overreacting cops with guns, and often those cops are not held to account for their actions – even after a black person is unnecessarily killed. In this case, which fortunately did not result in injury, a Las Vegas police officer chased Bennett after reports of shots being fired in the area of a casino. LVPD Undersherrif Kevin McMahill confirmed with reporters on Wednesday evening that no shots were fired in the incident.
Was the officer in question chasing Bennett because he was fleeing? Because he was black? Both? Was anyone else fleeing?
If so, why did the police officer chase Bennett?
“It’s a great question and I really can’t answer it yet,” McMahill said in a news conference about the run-in.
We may never know. The body camera the officer wore was not turned on.
This gets to the heart of what Kaepernick and Bennett are protesting. They want better training of police officers with guns, and better accountability for the police overall. The Las Vegas police have promised an investigation and accountability. Both are warranted.
On Wednesday, Goodell said this: “We will support Michael and all NFL players in promoting mutual respect between law enforcement and the communities they loyally serve, and fair and equal treatment under the law.”
“Mutual respect,” rather than one-way respect. It’s a noble goal, but the strong message many of the league’s players are sending is that mutual respect is not consistently there.
“A black man between the size of 6-4, and 5-3, they gonna get you,” said All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman in response to Bennett’s social media post. “But thankfully I made it out alive, and [Bennett] made it out alive.”
That’s a sobering sentiment, but it’s not abnormal. Seahawks rookie Naz Jones offered backup for both Bennett and Sherman: “Especially where I’m from [in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina], if you’re a big, black guy with nice things, people assume. They don’t assume good stuff. They assume the bad.”
Bennett is a community leader. Sherman went to Stanford. Jones has one of the most inspiring stories in football, and he was a regular volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House during college. And yet these men are used to being under suspicion for looking too rich or for looking too poor.
This is beyond football, too. NBA player Thabo Sefolosha missed the 2015 playoffs and needed months of rehab after breaking his leg during an arrest in New York City. He was handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct, but was acquitted and the city settled with him for $4 million. Police admitted no wrongdoing. In that same year, tennis pro James Blake was pushed to the ground and arrested after leaning on a pillar outside a hotel. The officer in question had previously faced at least seven complaints of abuse.
This is why Bennett protests the anthem, in his words: “because equality doesn’t live in this country and no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a ‘[racial slur]’ you will be treated that way.”
Many people scoffed at Kaepernick when he mentioned the word “oppressed” in his initial comments explaining his protest. How can someone who earns millions playing a game possibly be oppressed? Yet the literal definition of “oppression” is “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.” Bennett, like Sefolosha and Blake before him, is charging just that: unjust exercise of authority. If that’s indeed what happened, millions of dollars in salary did not help one bit.
Black athletes will continue to be victims of mistaken identity. The only thing that will change it is, in Goodell’s words, “serious attention from all leaders in every community.”
No matter how much Kaepernick continues to be hated, that “serious attention” is needed and it’s time more people in high places accepted that.