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Michael Bennett on Concussions & Brain Injuries in NFL: “Fans Need to Stop Dehumanizing Players”

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Image Credit: Flickr: Keith Allison

More than 280 players in the National Football League sustained concussions in the 2017 season. That’s an average of 12 per week. A recent study of the brains of 111 deceased NFL players found all but one were found to have CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head. We speak with NFL three-time Pro Bowler and longtime activist Michael Bennett about CTE, the risks athletes take while playing football and how fans need to humanize the players they love to watch on screen.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you also about the—and you talk about this in the book, as well, the injury situations within the NFL, the continuing epidemic of brain damage, of CTE. And you know that famous line in the film Concussion, when Alec Baldwin says, “Look, you don’t understand how powerful the NFL is. They own a day of the week. They took it from the church, Sunday.” How you see that continuing, the fight of the players to have their health needs dealt with?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think it’s two parts to that question. I think it’s the fans not dehumanizing the players and seeing them as, you know, things. So I think it’s: Do the fans connect to people, the players being human again? Because if the fans start to feel the human aspect of each player, then I think the NFL has no choice, because the fans are going to be bringing up these questions. You know, it’s just like any other thing. The players are fighting for something, and the fans are fighting for something different. It’s like, are we going to come on the same page and make sure that players are being seen as human?

And I think a lot of players are not just fighting for themselves in the NFL, but they’re also fighting for the young kids, because there’s an epidemic with concussions for young kids. There’s a whole bunch of people who are coaching football that don’t know how to tackle, you know, and they have young kids out there hurting their neck, dealing with different concussion issues. And then, you know, we get to college, we don’t have a voice. And so, the NFL players have no choice but to speak up on concussion issues, because everybody else, they don’t have a voice. They’re still trying to make it within sports. They’re still trying to find—making money, so they’re scared to speak. So, if we don’t speak, then they’re not going to speak. So we have to continuously fight for those issues, I think.

When you think about CTE, it’s a real—it’s a real thing. And I think fans don’t connect to that. They don’t connect to players having injuries. They connect to fantasy football. They see us as a fantasy. They see us as not being real. They don’t see us with families. They don’t see us with children. They don’t see us with family members who love us. They just see us for how do we catch a touchdown, what’s the latest dance, and what is the latest brand that we’re supporting.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that issue, it is so extreme. During the 2017 season, more than 280 players in the NFL sustained concussions, an average of 12 per week. That’s more than one a day. The Intercept’s Josh Begley tracked these injuries and created a visual record of every concussion in the NFL this year in a new documentary called Concussion Protocol. Time magazine reports the link between football and TBI, traumatic brain injury, continues to strengthen. Now, one of the largest studies on the subject to date finds 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, this degenerative brain disorder associated with repetitive head trauma.

MICHAEL BENNETT: That’s why I think, you know, when we talk about marijuana and marijuana issues around the world, that’s why I feel like, you know, there should be some type of—you know, where the NFL starts to work with those things, because it has healing properties in it, you know, when you talk about the medicine that people are using. You know, look at all these Toradols, all these different types of pills that people are taking. They need to find another way to deal with those injuries and find ways to give people, you know, the real, true—I don’t know how to say this without getting in trouble, but giving people the real herbs that really help people grow in their mind and helping them feel better. I think when you talk about concussions, you talk about those type of things, you need to start looking at different ways to deal with those injuries, not just like, “Hey, put him back out there, or take an Advil.” It’s like, how do you measure a person’s brain? How do you do that kind of stuff? And I think the NFL and people, in general, and players have an obligation to themselves, too. I think sometimes the players don’t listen to their bodies. Like, when are we going to start listening to our bodies and say like, “This is enough,” too?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking about the body, it’s not just the brain. Give us a sense of the pain level that athletes are dealing with on a regular basis, broken bones on an almost regular basis.

MICHAEL BENNETT: That’s why I say like, you know, there’s a big problem with opioids when it comes to the NFL or just any type of sport, because people are dealing with real pains, like daily pains, whether it’s their back, whether it’s their ankle, whether it’s their neck. You know, you think about every Sunday you’re going into a car wreck. You know, you’re coming in, and then, boom, and hitting each other really hard. So a lot of people are dealing with crazy injuries. And sometimes, you know, I see guys that go out there, and I’m just like, “Dude, you’re amazing. Like your pain level is like a nine right now.” But people find a way to get through it. You know, that just shows the human part of their body to just want to fight for their teammates.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you protect yourself?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I don’t know if you can protect yourself.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, every time you go out on the field, I mean, it’s like a—

MICHAEL BENNETT: You feel fear. You feel fear. I think anybody that’s a player—or, they’re lying to the masses if they say that they don’t have fear, because fear is the first step to realizing that there’s some type of danger. And I think a lot of people won’t say that they have fear, but there’s a lot of players who have fear, you know, whether it’s now or the future. What does my future hold? You know, and so, those things are dealing with yourself and your insecurities about like my own body. And I think a lot of people don’t want to admit that. But for young kids, I think that it’s important that athletes be vulnerable, when it comes to injuries and when it comes to the dark side of sports, whether it’s depression or different types of things, because, you know, we glorify the greatest parts of it, but we must also amplify the worst parts of it. So, I think it’s important as a young athlete to continuously push for young players to see those type of things.

AMY GOODMAN: Your brother Martellus, Martellus Bennett, the football star also, wrote the foreword to your book.

MICHAEL BENNETT: He’s not a football star anymore. He’s a creative star. No, I’m joking.

AMY GOODMAN: He wrote, “Superheroes don’t come to underserved communities. Superheroes aren’t on earth to save minorities. Superheroes are here to save white America. Knowing this, as kids, the superstar athletes became our superheroes. They didn’t leap over tall buildings, they leaped from the free throw line. They ran faster than speeding bullets through the finish lines, breaking records. They didn’t have superhuman strength to break through walls, but they did break down barriers.”

You’re doing that all the time by spotlighting issues. One of them is the issue of police brutality. You were just last, in the last few weeks, back in Seattle, remembering a woman who was killed by police, remembering Charleena Lyles a year ago, an African-American pregnant mother who was shot and killed by police in Seattle after she called 911 to report a burglary at her apartment. The two white police officers shot Lyles in front of her young children inside her own home, police claiming she was holding a knife. Her family members said she had a history of mental health issues. You spoke recently at her vigil.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Hearing about Charleena Lyles back at home, and I heard the story. I couldn’t believe it, because all I could think about was my sister, who is a mother, my wife, all my family members, everybody in my family that was a mother, who could be taken away from their kids, was something that—I couldn’t fathom that that could happen in 2018 and 2017 or 2016, but it seems to be happening very quite often. And I think, through this pain, all we can do is go out and try to make a change in our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: There you are, Michael Bennett, in Seattle, remembering Charleena Lyles. And here you are, sitting in Democracy Now!’s studios. In our headlines, reporting—we just were reporting on the funeral for Antwon Rose—

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —17-year-old kid, about to graduate, and he’s shot by a cop who was sworn in a few hours before he shot Antwon in the back.

MICHAEL BENNETT: You know, for me, like when you talk about these issues, it’s very—it’s an epidemic. You know, it’s not just a black thing. It’s in general, people are being—lives are being taken. And when you think about Charleena Lyles, everybody was picking a side, or it was this side, that side. But at the end of the day, people are forgetting about the families that are being left behind. When you think about, you know, a mother being pulled away from her child, that is something—when you have a child, it’s like this is you. It’s the essence of you. Your child means everything to you. You’re willing to step in front of a bullet. You’re willing to do anything to keep your child safe. And for a child to see his mother murdered in front of him, it’s a traumatic experience. Nobody is ever talking about the children or the families that happen after this. You know, you see these families, and you see these kids. They have to go to—they have to go to all these different people, these specialists, to move forward as humans.

And I think—when I think about Charleena Lyles, I think about her life, and then I think about her family. When I think about Antwon, I think about his family, his mother. I think about all these families and mothers. And I think, you know, we have to start thinking about these things, less about—you know, we need to just start thinking about the families and why does this keep happening. Why don’t people have empathy for life? Why don’t people care when somebody is taken away? We don’t see death. We’ve been so desensitized to death, that people don’t see a death and just move on and stop in Starbucks and get the latest coffee—even I don’t got to Starbucks anymore. But at the same time, people just move forward with it, and it just kind of just, you know—and with her, that was just another—

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, it was a Starbucks in Philadelphia, where you’re headed—

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —to be an Eagle.

MICHAEL BENNETT: I support local coffee, local business. But at the same time, it’s just that disconnect between keeping those people human. You know, we dehumanize them. We polarize the situation. But we never talk about the families or what the people go through. And I think—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—sports heroes, by the youth of America, are seen as gods, and so you actually have a lot of influence in terms of young people across America. What do you think needs to be done to reform sports in America so that it’s not so much into the bottom line of making money, which then, obviously, distorts how you, as players, are treated, because the teams want to make money, how the colleges deal with you, because they want to make money?

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah, I keep saying this, but this is what I feel. I feel that we have to humanize the people again. I think athletes have been so dehumanized. It’s like, when I walk into a place, people feel like automatically they get a picture, because they don’t see me as a human. I can be with my family, you know, changing my daughter or trying to change a tire—I’m in the middle of the road trying to change a tire, and somebody’s like, “Hey, can I get a selfie?” It’s like—because they don’t see me as a human. They see me as entertainment. They don’t see me as, you know, this. And I think, as athletes, we need to start humanizing ourselves and building walls.

And I think, within the athletic world, we need to have a reform and be able to create our own grouping. That’s something that I’ve been working on with a lot of other athletes as Athletes for Impact. It’s like, how do we create an organization for young athletes to have impact in their community and have a voice for themselves? And I think that’s the truth of what we’re trying to do, is like create our own organization and create our own words and create our own situations.

And I think there needs to be a major reform, especially in college sports, because if you look at the collegiate level, there’s so many kids who get injured, who—they get charged for their own surgeries if they don’t make it. Or, you know, they just recently made the scholarships a 4-year pact. Before, it was year to year. So, it’s not been like that. It’s not—it’s just been changed not that long ago. So, it’s like, we need to make sure that these kids have a voice. We need to make sure that these coaches don’t get to just pick schools and make kids stay for a long time and use their own—you know, use their own reason why kids shouldn’t play, you know, keep these kids from growing. And I think it just needs to have a major reform. We need more black coaches. We need—we need a lot of stuff going on in sports.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are the overwhelming majority of owners—or, I don’t know what you call them, but owners, football owners—white, most of them billionaires, but—and 70 percent of the players are black?

MICHAEL BENNETT: Do you really want me to answer that question?

AMY GOODMAN: Mm-hmm.

MICHAEL BENNETT: I don’t know. Post-colonialism? I don’t know what to tell you. I mean, it’s a lot of things. I think the business is built on that. It is a business that’s been the same for a long time. And I don’t know why it’s like that. It’s just the league that I grew up in. It’s the way that things have always been. And everything has always been white-owned and minority-worked. So, I don’t know how to change that, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: You heard the latest of Donald Trump in the headlines, threatening Maxine Waters, saying, “Watch out, Max.”

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The African-American congresswoman from Los Angeles, calling her an extremely “low IQ person.”

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about football players as “sons of b—s,” going after you over and over, football players, athletes, overwhelmingly African-American, the groups he’s talking to. What do you say to him?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think—I don’t know what to say to a person who lacks the empathy and compassion for other people. I think, for me, it’s about he needs to look in the mirror and deal with his own insecurities. When people are talking about these real issues, it’s like you’ve got to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You’ve got to be able to put yourself in a person who’s a migrant worker who’s trying to change their own lives and coming to America, and put yourself in their shoes to see what it feels like when their kids are being taken away. You’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of a young black male who’s getting pulled over by a police officer and worried if he’s ever going to go home and see his family. You’ve got to—so, I would just challenge him, like you need to start putting yourself in your own shoes.

And you’re putting people in danger by calling out Maxine Waters. You know, people are looking up—she’s a beautiful being. She’s a person who cares about people of color, and she wants to make a change. And instead of like, you know, fighting her, how about just listening? I think that’s the biggest issue with him, is that he doesn’t ever listen to the people who are screaming and saying, “Hey, listen to me!” It’s like, when you scream louder, he puts on headphones. And then, when you scream even louder, he just walks away. So, he doesn’t have the ability to be able to confront these issues and have an intellectual conversation with other people.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Bennett, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Final question, the title of your book: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable?

MICHAEL BENNETT: You know, when I thought about the title of the book, I thought about Richard Pryor. I thought about all these great comedians who would able to take a word or take a situation and bring some humor to it. And I wanted to be able to bring a humorous title but at the same time challenge people.

You know, there’s a whole bunch of things that have happened in America that are deep, dark secrets that everybody knows, and then it happens to be around white America, who don’t pay attention to them, right? They don’t live in the community. So, I wanted to be able to write a book that unveils me as a person, you know, and talks about these different issues that we, as a community, have to be able to come to. And we have to be so uncomfortable with them that we have to listen and be able to grow. And I think that’s what this title is about. It’s about growth in our communities and growth around people around this country, and speaking for other people who don’t have a voice.

And it’s time for—I feel that white people need to be able to start being uncomfortable with these situations. They’ve been so comfortable with seeing immigrants taken. They’ve been so comfortable with seeing, you know, people being killed by the police. They’ve been so comfortable with victimizing and raping when it comes to the #MeToo movement. They’ve been so comfortable with it that it’s just been a normal thing. When is it going to become uncomfortable for everybody to see these things? When is it going to be uncomfortable for us to walk through and watch TV and see an issue like that and be like, you know, “How do we change it?” When is it going to be uncomfortable to see homeless people, you know, to see a mother—when is it going to become something that becomes uncomfortable, you know?

At this point, it’s just been so comfortable. And this book is about: Stop being comfortable. Start making a change. You know, stop writing on Twitter. Go out in the community and make a change, you know. Stop picking at—”Oh, I’m this. I’m this so much that I can’t even see people for being human no more.” And that’s really what this title is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Bennett, thanks so much for being with us. His book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. Michael Bennett, the NFL player, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, also activist. We thank you so much.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, children being separated from their parents. We speak with a psychologist on the irreparable effects of snatching children. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, right from Michael Bennett’s playlist.

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