The next time Michael Bennett finds himself speechless will be the first. He has called himself "the Michael Phelps of chicken consumption." He once compared a Marshawn Lynch run to the Underground Railroad. He has described his gyrating sack dance as being like "two angels dancing while chocolate is coming from the heavens."
His best friends in the NFL? Benjamin and Franklin, he says. His coach, Pete Carroll? He's like Willy Wonka. The Seahawks? They're so popular, Bennett once joked, that quarterback Russell Wilson was pulled over and the cop got a ticket.
One of football's most interesting players also happens to star on one of the NFL's most interesting teams down the stretch: The defensive end's 8 ½ sacks have helped Seattle surge from a 2--4 start and back into NFC playoff contention. All of which makes Bennett the perfect partner for a discussion about these strange, scary and fascinating days in the NFL ... and beyond.
Why don't all athletes speak their minds like you do?
Michael Bennett: As a black man in America, and an athlete, we should speak up more about things, like Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali did. The difference between now and then is sponsorships. We're sponsored by so many companies that guys can't do what they should. Think about it like this: Guys will be on TV saying they eat McDonald's and drink Pepsi. And you know they have personal chefs! They don't eat none of that stuff!
What about Missouri's football team—what did you think when they spoke out about racism on campus, threatening not to play?
MB: A long time ago, when people took stands on social issues, you couldn't always see it. But because this is happening on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, it's [everywhere] instantly. And everyone can be a part of it. I thought it was a strong movement to start examining the problem with America. We've come far with technology, but with things like morals, it seems like people are still simpleminded.
Would you have participated in something like that in college, at Texas A&M?
MB: Yeah. Racism on college campuses, it's pretty common. Look at most D-I colleges, and look at the minority percentages—they're small. Many of those minorities are athletes. A lot of these colleges are old schools in old towns. At A&M, I was called the n-word several times.... I would be walking with some of my friends late at night and hear somebody call me a n-----. Like, "Go back!" [Back then], people knew that stuff happened, but it was never seen. Cops have been killing people, but it had never been seen. Now it's being seen. People are like, That could be my child.
Could a pro team pull off something like what Missouri did?
MB: They could. But everything has to do with money in the pros. Are enough guys financially secure enough to step up like that?
Right. Will it happen?
MB: I think it will. What players have to realize is we are the product. We are everything. Without us, there's no game.
Have you watched the presidential primary debates?
MB: They've been pretty interesting, Donald Trump being Donald Trump, saying the things he's been saying. It's interesting that he was up in the polls. [He still is.] It makes me feel like, deep inside, some people feel the way he feels. And that's just weird. Then you think about, like, Ben Carson. I'm listening to him, and I'm like, what?
What bugs you about him?
MB: He takes credit for a lot of things—but whatever. I don't trust him because of the way he moves his hands. Something about his hands tells me he's telling a lie.
What would be your dream ticket?
MB: Hillary. I'm a Democrat. I was between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton; I'm hoping they run together.
What issues concern you (a 30-year-old pro athlete making $7 million a year)?
MB: The marijuana issue—to legalize it or not. And same-sex marriage.
What's your stance on marijuana legalization?
MB: If you're going to legalize cigarettes and liquor, I don't see why marijuana shouldn't be legalized. At the end of the day they all do the same thing.
There was another mass shooting recently. (Bennett spoke to SI one day after 14 people were killed in San Bernardino.)
MB: It makes you think, Why don't people value other people's lives as much as they should? You worry about what's going through everybody's mind in society right now. Why can't we all just get along, man?
Where do you stand on gun rights?
MB: Getting a gun should be harder than getting a mortgage. Or there should be some psychological test [to buy one]. When people have guns, they tend to use them.
Like the attacks in Paris.
MB: Religion is one of those things like: If you like this color, or if you like that color, that's your preference. But people want to push it on others, so much that they're willing to kill for it.
A soccer stadium was targeted in Paris. Do you worry about terrorism at an NFL game?
MB: I do, because at this point it's about: How big can we go? The Olympics will probably be one of the most unsafe places in the summer. It's scary.
You've played in two Super Bowls. Did you worry about terrorism?
MB: No. I knew our security was top-notch.
You had extra security at your practices.
MB: Yeah. Partly because we were playing the Patriots. You know what they do.
The allegations that they cheat—does that bother you?
MB: I don't really care about it. People are envious of what [coach Bill] Belichick does with his roster. There will be a movie about him one day. He's found a way to win, regardless of talent. It's about the mind-set he's created. A great CEO, a great leader—it's about your philosophy. I believe that if you can get 65% to 75% of your people to believe in your philosophy, then you've got a great business.
What's that percentage in Seattle?
MB: We've had 100% before, when we won the Super Bowl. We're getting to 70% [right now].
Does that explain why you guys seem to play better at the end of the year?
MB: We play well at the end of the year because we use a lot of young players. Young players figure it out later in the year.
Did you see the documentary on the Patriots this off-season? Belichick said you were killing them in the Super Bowl.
MB: I never get a lot of credit. I'm just a guy that nobody really talks about.
Is this the year you make the Pro Bowl?
MB: I'm on a Pro Bowl--level every year. Every week teams are scheming for me. I'm still making plays.
So it's political?
MB: It's like the Oscars. The movies you think should win, they never win.
Your recent hit on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dented his face mask.
MB: I bent his face mask? I wanted to hit Roethlisberger, but I never wanted to hurt him. I respect the game. I'm all for whupping somebody's ass. But I'm also all for doing the right thing.
What did you think about his removing himself from the game after that hit?
MB: That was one of the bravest things ever in the NFL. Every player should be doing that. If you feel like you have an injury and it's related to your brain, you should take yourself out. At the end of the day it's just a game! It's crazy how much emphasis people put on a game. It's sad.
Have you ever pulled yourself?
MB: I've pulled myself. I never had a concussion where I thought I couldn't go—just a bad hit. I'd pull myself if I had to. Especially with my [three] daughters.
Do you think quarterbacks are protected more than they should be?
MB: It's b.s. I've argued with the NFL for years about that. If you look at the investment level of the game since fantasy football came around, it's heavy on the quarterback, heavy on receivers. So [the league is] going to protect those guys. But everybody should be protected the same. Every player has a family. Offensive and defensive linemen, really, are the people who consistently have contact every play—those should be the most protected players on the field. Instead, it's all about the quarterback, on the videos, on everything. If the league could have just quarterbacks and receivers [playing], they would.
The NFL markets players other than QBs.
MB: They choose who they want to market. It's all about: Who's marketable? Who has the look? A whole bunch of great players never had any commercials. Think about Julius Peppers. He hasn't had the amount of commercials or the notoriety that J.J. Watt [has].
What's the criteria, then?
MB: I won't say.
Who else has been ignored?
MB: John Abraham. I mean, tons. Certain guys get love. Like Luke Kuechly. Clay Matthews.
You're noting a pattern there?
MB: Yeah, there's a pattern.
Do you argue your fines?
MB: I write [the league] whenever I get fined. But the thing about the players' association, we're not one unit. We can't come to agreement on things. That's why we're so weak in bargaining. We're the weakest group of all the sports. Look at the NBA. NBA players run their s---. Baseball players run their s---. Hockey players run their s---. We don't run our s---; that's why we get f-----over in a lot of these situations.
What are the dividing issues?
MB: Nobody is thinking about the future until the future happens.
What would change that?
MB: In the NBA the biggest players are involved in everything. The NFL's not like that. The biggest players, the Peyton Mannings, they do their thing. You don't see Peyton Manning coming out and saying, This, this, that, that. Or J.J. Watt. Or Clay Matthews. They're not affected by the things everybody else is affected [by].
What do you make of Roger Goodell's tenure as commissioner?
MB: If I'm an NFL owner, then he's done a great job.
And if you're a player?
MB: He works for the owners. That's his job. He's done a good job of protecting their investments.
Should it be that way?
MB: No. We're the product. The thing is, we're replaceable. A lot of players get hurt feelings when they're cut. They've got to realize, they're just another number.
What do you think about daily fantasy?
MB: Another example of players being in a weak situation: We don't control that. It's another revenue we're not receiving any stream from.
Referees have been under heavy criticism this season. Is that fair?
MB: Referees are terrible, always been terrible. One referee told me that 98% of the time they make the right call. I asked him, "Are you God?" He's like, "No." Then you don't make the right call 98% of the time. You make the right call 50% of the time. At best.
And at worst?
MB: Thirty percent right.
It can't be that bad.
MB: They miss so many calls because they don't know what they're looking for. There's a hands-to-the-face [penalty] every play. The one person they're watching every play is the quarterback; they miss calls because they're looking at him.
But you wouldn't say it's worse this year?
MB: It has been bad ever since I've been in the NFL.
What's the worst call you've ever seen?
MB: The play that won the Patriots the Super Bowl. I thought Malcolm Butler's interception was pass interference. I thought he hit [Ricardo Lockette] before he could catch the ball.
Earlier this season Lockette was hospitalized with a serious neck injury. Do you worry about the physical toll of football?
MB: You see that happen and you think, I'm not invincible. This s---could happen to me. Deep down, everybody's scared. If anybody says they're not, they're lying. I'm like, Damn, my kids ... I just want to see their kids grow up. That's my mind-set.
You play one of the most physical positions.
MB: The only people that really play football are offensive and defensive linemen. Everybody else is just running around. They can do their jobs without clothes on!
It's suggested that doctors may soon be able to test for CTE in living people. If you had brain damage, would you want to know?
MB: I'd want to know.
Do you think most players would?
MB: Everybody wants to know. I would retire the same day, do something different.
MB: I'd be a marine biologist. I love the ocean. Studying the water, that'd be cool.
This social conscience of yours, the need to speak your mind, does it run in your family?
MB: Yes. Everybody is pretty much tell-it-how-it-is. My family reunion is like a reality show, there are so many jokesters.
Who influences you?
MB: Lionel Messi. I like watching soccer. I love watching tennis, Venus and Serena. And then baseball—but I can't say the one guy I like because he got suspended for doing drugs again.
Did you play any of those sports?
MB: I played soccer until ninth grade, tennis until 11th grade. I did some swimming in college—not on the team, or anything, but I was a lifeguard in high school.
Did you ever save anyone?
MB: I saved my younger brother.
MB: I used to work at a water park. My parents kept dropping their kids off at my job. I told [my brother Reshaud] not to go too deep in, and he fell. I went to save him. Out of all the people it had to be him, right?
What about pop-culture influences?
MB: I've always watched comedians like Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Larry David, Seinfeld. They've got that dry humor. I love those guys. I always wanted to have good jokes like them, man.... I like all types of stuff. Movies. Sci-fi. Star Trek. The Walking Dead. Game of Thrones.
Who are you most like in Game of Thrones?
MB: Either Tyrion or the Hound. Tyrion: You never know what he's thinking or what he'll do. He killed his daddy and his whore. The Hound is just a beast.
Do any of those shows influence your sack celebrations?
MB: I grew up watching the WWF. Kurt Angle. Ravishing Rick Rude. The Undertaker. Ultimate Warrior. Eddie Guerrero. Those were my first loves in sport. I always wanted to entertain like them. That's how I came up with my dance. It's a heavenly dance. You make babies to that dance.
What does your wife think when you say that?
MB: She agrees with it. We've had two children since we've been in Seattle, so we must be doing something right.
You're big on beards. Explain.
MB: In the history of time, every wise man had a beard. I never saw Paul Bunyan—I know he's fake—but Paul Bunyan was cool. He ate a stack of pancakes, had a blue cow, an ax. He had a beard. Of course, Jesus had a beard. Moses had a beard. Abraham had a beard. Malcolm X had a beard. It's a wisdom thing.
Are you a Star Wars guy? Episode VII opens soon.
MB: I'm a Star Wars guy. It's so funny: This is a make-believe world, but people are upset about the fact that [actor John Boyega, who plays a stormtrooper in the new movie] is black. People are racist, and they don't even know why they're racist; they're racist in a fake world! People are mad because there might be a black James Bond too. It's a fake movie! If you guys can't get over that, I don't know.... That just shows: No matter what, race plays a big part in our society all the time. I'm just trying to figure out why.
Anything we left out?
MB: ESPN does the Body Issue, right? I thought SPORTS ILLUSTRATED could do another issue that I made up.
I'm all ears.
MB: The Scar Issue. It would just be about scars—like, all the athletes around the world, their miraculous comebacks, their scars. There are so many guys who have played with injuries that you're like, Oh, my God; this guy can barely stand up!
The Scar Issue. I like it.
MB: I'm telling you.