SEATTLE – Dave Zirin’s jaw did the same thing yours probably did the first time you heard the title of Michael Bennett’s upcoming book.
But once he picked it up off the floor and stopped laughing – and talked Bennett into dropping the last two words from the original “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable at Dinner” – he knew he had a heck of a book on his hands.
“I thought to myself, this is one of those titles – especially if people know Michael, and who he is, and his sense of humor – they’re going to be very curious, and they’re going to smile,” Zirin said during an interview with Q13 News on Tuesday. “And the people who don’t like it probably aren’t going to be looking to buy a book by Michael Bennett.”
Zirin had already written several books examining the intersection of politics and sports, and after meeting and appearing on stage with Bennett at an event in Seattle early last year, the two quickly decided to collaborate.
It turned out to be the wildest of years to be writing a book with the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive end as Bennett’s national profile mushroomed in the later summer and early fall.
First, there was Bennett’s decision to sit on the bench during the national anthem in protest of social injustice, which in time came under fire from many people – including President Donald Trump. Then, there was a high-profile incident with the Las Vegas police and the police department’s response.
“It changed the book dramatically, because I did not see this as some ‘big book’ (at first),” Zirin said. “…I saw it at first as a love letter to the 12s, the Seattle fans, and really starting a conversation in the Pacific Northwest and among NFL fans, honestly. And then Michael kind of went global – there’s no other way to put it.
“To see Michael changed by what was happening around him – it was like a moving target, for lack of a better term, in terms of the book, because I also wanted to have it reflect the evolution in Michael that I was experiencing in front of my eyes. (There were) much fewer jokes, basically. … When the President is calling you an S.O.B., when the Las Vegas police union is going after you on a national level – it tends to make things a lot less funny very quickly.”
Zirin said he saw first-hand the weight of those events on Bennett, even as Bennett was fighting plantar fasciitis and a knee injury while trying to keep the Seahawks’ defense together
“We changed the whole beginning of the book to where it’s a section called ‘On Fear,’” Zirin said. “That was at Michael’s insistence, because he said ‘I want to make it clear this book isn’t about making other people uncomfortable – I’m really uncomfortable these days, because I’m scared a lot of the time. I feel very vulnerable because of how public I’ve become around these issues.’”
The book will discuss the anthem protests and the Vegas incident, as well as issues like Black Lives Matter, the sacrifices NFL players make, poverty and inequality and the lack of good grocery stores in poor neighborhoods.
“I think Michael Bennett is throwing a big ol’ rock in the water, not just with is actions but with this book, and we’re just going to have to see what happens in the days and weeks to come,” Zirin said.
The uproar over the book has already begun, as evidenced by the comments section on any story about it. Zirin said Bennett is very aware that there will be fallout.
“There’s the basic risk of people on social media who feel totally casual about throwing down threats of violence, throwing down threats against the people he cares about, throwing down threats against the team,” Zirin said. “People act like that’s nothing and they just put them out there, and that’s incredibly stressful.
“Like he says in the book: He’s not just some actor who can show up to shoot a scene somewhere. People know where he’s going to be on Sunday.”
Zirin, who’s written about other outspoken black athletes like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, said Bennett is one of the faces of a historic moment.
“You can’t talk about the civil rights movement without talking about Jackie Robinson,” he said. “You can’t talk about the 1960s without talking about Muhammad Ali. In the future, I don’t think we’re going to be able to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement without speaking about people like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett and Serena Williams as part of that narrative.”
Zirin said he knows the book isn’t for everybody - “I think we have a book where anybody inclined to not like it is going to not like it without reading it” – but said he thinks Bennett distilled his thoughts down to a useful form.
“The goal of this book is to make people who are wary of what Michael Bennett stands for actually understand what that is,” Zirin said. “If people out there are watching and they have like a dad or grandpa who’s like ‘I can’t stand these protesting players,’ this is the perfect gift for them.”