Michael Bennett would have preferred to keep it in the family. After everything the Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl defensive end and a cadre of other NFL players had risked to protest during the national anthem, he thought they had an impenetrable bond. But their bond has been broken.
Earlier this week, four key players split with the Players Coalition, the main group negotiating with the NFL about the demonstrations to shine a light on racial injustice, revealing longstanding disagreements. The fracture occurred on the eve of owners making an unprecedented offer to players of nearly $100 million to help them effect social change. The former cohorts have engaged in a public war of words. Bennett hasn’t determined where he stands.
“It does disappoint me a little bit,” Bennett said this week at Seahawks headquarters. “When something is really important, you want to be seen as a whole, you want to be seen as being together. You don’t want to show anything being broken apart.”
On Wednesday, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas and wide receiver Kenny Stills, and Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung said they would no longer participate with the coalition, a group of roughly 40 players, in negotiations with the NFL commissioner’s office.
Citing a lack of transparency and other concerns about the process, Reid, Thomas, Stills and Okung said they weren’t comfortable with the coalition continuing to speak on their behalf. Reid has been especially critical of the performance of Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who along with recently retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin leads the coalition.
Reid even accused Jenkins of lying to the coalition and secretly negotiating with commissioner Roger Goodell. Jenkins denied the allegations.
Bennett saw problems coming.
“Sometimes when you’re in a situation with a group, you’re going to bump heads,” he said. “We all are passionate. We’ve all got a certain level of commitment to what we’re trying to accomplish. Things happen. But those things should be kept behind closed doors.”
The league has moved forward with its plans to partner with the coalition. The sides have an agreement in principle, and owners are expected to vote to finalize the deal at the annual league meetings in March. The NFL’s multifaceted offer earmarks at least $89 million over a seven-year period for both national and local projects.
On the national level, owners this year will allocate $5 million, with their commitment growing annually and maxing out at $12 million from 2021 through 2023. At the local level, owners will put up $250,000 annually and expect players to match that amount, totaling $500,000 for each team. Players and owners can exceed that amount if they choose, with no matching requirement. There would be other fundraising opportunities through auctions of jerseys worn in games, telethons, etc.
Although there’s no implicit quid pro quo that demonstrations will stop, owners and high-ranking league officials are hopeful that things will return to how they were before then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat and then kneeled during the anthem last season. Meanwhile, the players at odds with the coalition’s leadership plan to continue striving to uplift the African-American community as they see fit. They haven’t ruled out future protests.
Bennett, who’s close with all the players involved in the dispute, “understands both sides. I really understand. But as a leader, you have to be able to pull yourself out of it, just pull back a little, and take a complete view of what’s happening.”
That’s why Bennett plans to work the phones. Perhaps it’s not too late to repair the damage. He definitely intends to find out.
“It’s about the conversations I have with the rest of the guys,” Bennett said. “We have to be able to move on as a collective group. And to be able to talk to each individual leader is important. We’ll see.”
Earlier this season, Bennett said he would continue to protest until a team signed Kaepernick. In October, Kaepernick filed a grievance under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement alleging that owners have conspired to keep him out of the league. At this point, it would be shocking if Kaepernick returned to the NFL.
On Sunday night, the Seahawks host the Eagles. Will Bennett stay the course on protesting?
“I’m going to talk to Kaep,” Bennett said. “I want to see what he thinks.”