In a world where privileged football sports figures make vacuous and cowardly statements about politics, Bennett has been a voice of intelligence and compassion. He was vocal in supporting Colin Kaepernick’s protest against systemic injustice and anti-Blackness in the United States, and his most recent public comments have cemented his unwavering commitment to understanding the roots of injustice — despite the attempts by Israeli organizations to gloss over the oppression of Palestinians.
In a detailed letter published on Instagram, Bennett explained that he was pulling out of the excursion because he had no interest in being associated as an “ambassador of good will for Israel”. Bennett clarified that a piece in The Times of Israel swayed his decision against being used as a tool for Zionist propaganda. The article included comments from Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan, who insisted that inviting the players was part of an effort to amplify Israel’s image, tarnished by accusations of human rights abuses.
“The ministry which I lead is spearheading an intensive fight against the delegitimization and BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanction] campaigns against Israel,” Erdan is quoted as saying. “And part of this struggle includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport.”
Bennett responded to this by explaining that he would certainly wish to travel to Israel but include a visit to Gaza, the West Bank and Occupied Territories to visit with Palestinians.
He quoted the example of the beloved Muhammad Ali and his commitment to understanding the struggles and resistance of Palestinian people. He is aware of the tremendous history of Black athletes supporting the Palestinian resistance and their freedom.
One day before Barnett canceled his trip, The Nation’s Dave Zirin published a powerful letter from a collective of notable academics and activists including Angela Davis, Dr. John Carlos, Alice Walker and respected organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
In an email conversation with Zirin, I asked why an issue such as protesting the gross violations of Palestinians was now affecting athletes. “Certainly the solidarity of Muhammad Ali with the Palestinian people has been whitewashed and erased from history. You did not see it in almost all of the tributes to his life after he passed. It’s not surprising at all players haven’t made that connection,” Zirin wrote to me. “I also know that trips like this NFL delegation are sold to players in a very apolitical way as in ‘come take a free trip to Israel!’ The big mistake of the Israeli government in this case was to be so public about the use of this trip to shape opinion about the occupation. That’s what started Michael’s mind working and making those connections.”
The words from the luminaries not only affected Bennett but he implored other players to not go. From Bennett’s actions, the delegation that started out with 10 has dwindled down to seven. Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and Denver Broncos running back Justin Forsett have also pulled out of the trip.
Couldn't have said it any better. I'm in! https://t.co/F1vFBVJlmR
— Kenny Stills (@KSTiLLS) February 11, 2017
Perhaps one of the most honest replies when pressed on the issue was from Forsett, who acknowledged his knowledge of the region was not as strong. Admitting that he needs to be better informed is crucial. It creates a space for learning from legitimate organizations and people. The letter signed by individuals and organizations is an excellent place to start, particularly when those signing the letter are Black sports heroes.
The opportunity to learn of injustices is what created such tremendous mobilizing from organizations like The Dream Defenders. They have united Black Lives Matter activists and Indigenous water protectors with Palestinian resistors. This helps people understand the complexities of conflict.
The reality is that systems of oppression to not function differently. They rely on white supremacy to keep them afloat while silencing the voices of victims who continue to stand in the face of injustice. Athletes might not always have had access or knowledge to critical analysis. But we are seeing a shift in how athletes share and offer this information.
In the last few years we have seen athletes and allies, rise up and vocalize their opinions on Black Lives Matter, on Islamophobia, and on the Refugee Ban. Their brave and bold actions are affecting their teammates and influencing other athletes. Their platforms are lit with quotes from luminaries, and leaders in the fight against oppression.
The NFL is hardly a bastion of good deeds that advocates for social causes. In fact, Roger Goodell the NFL Commissioner is criticized for being self-serving.
I asked Zirin if he believed that Roger Goodell or the NFL might chastise or attempt to silence the players. He doesn’t think this is the case. “I don’t think Roger Goodell will say a damn thing. I think that frankly [Goodell] is still cocooning and licking his wounds from Deflategate and the ascension of Tom Brady. He also made the decision a year ago to not crack down on players for protest during the anthem. It would be one hell of a swerve for him to crack down on players now. Also, if an owner tried to crack down on any of the players who are going, what would be their rationale?”
NFL players have an opportunity to experience travel and offer support to many causes and issues. By pulling out of this trip to Israel Bennett and other athletes might have actually done a lot to expose fans and other players to the realities of brutal injustices by Israel. This provides an opportunity for other players to make informed decisions and take previously-shielded histories into account.
There has been a spike of mainstream reporting on the struggle in Palestine since Bennett’s comments. This points to the power of athletes in society, and the impact they are able to have. He has also clarified that oppression of people at the hands of others is not difficult to comprehend. And like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali and Dr. John Carlos, he has shown that discerning truth is not complicated. We look to the teachers and leaders of the past. And they continue to push for change, even from an organization like the NFL.
Bennett ended his letter with an incredibly moving statement quoting one of the signatories of the letter published in The Nation. He wrote: “Like 1968 Olympian John Carlos always says, ‘There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.’ Well, I’m in.”
Empathy, support and cohesion from different parties only strengthens movements like BDS and other campaigns fighting for social change and human rights. Bennett is a leader in the NFL towards understanding those intersections. He shows us that solidarity is not selective.