How the Seahawks Became the Social Justice Warriors of the NFL

They were on the plane when they heard what Trump said.

On a late Friday night in September, the Seattle Seahawks were en route to Nashville, where they would face the Tennessee Titans, when the news started blowing up with President Donald Trump’s comments about NFL players who had been sitting during the national anthem.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'” Trump said at a rally in Alabama.

It was September 22nd. Puerto Rico was under water, millions of people were without electricity and were running out of food and medicine. Texas was still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, and there was the distinct possibility that North Korea would take Trump up on his Twitter threats and start a nuclear war.

They were flabbergasted. “North Korea is going on right now and this is what you are talking about?” says defensive end Cliff Avril.

The President of the United States was calling them sons of bitches and threatening their livelihoods. This was more than a dog whistle. It was a bullhorn. They knew they had to do something.

The Seahawks have been out front from the beginning. In 2016, Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane was the first player from another team to follow suit after then-49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem in protest against racial injustice and police brutality. In September 2016, as the controversy around the protests heated up, the Seahawks decided they would lock arms during the anthem before their 9/11 game – demonstrating unity, coaches and players, alike – the first team to do so as a unit, with the Kansas City Chiefs following suit.

Last year, long before Trump was president, a smattering of players had joined Kaepernick – most notably Chiefs’ Marcus Peters and several Philadelphia Eagles players, including Malcolm Jenkins, who threw a black power fist in the air. But in the weeks after Trump’s comments, players on every team took part in a protest in some fashion or other, with many teams interlocking arms. The president had effectively played himself.

The Seahawks are a team where debates about Black Lives Matter and police reform regularly happen during press conferences, and the Seattle media and much of the city’s populace don’t bat an eye. A cast of outspoken and controversial players – the team was once home to running back Marshawn “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” Lynch and counts opinionated cornerback Richard Sherman, activist defensive end Michael Bennett and wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who regularly uses his platform to address police brutality and reform, among its leaders. It was the only NFL team that publicly had Kaepernick in for a visit, declining to sign him as a backup because Carroll called him a “starter in this league.”)

Once in Nashville, a core group of team members held a meeting. Avril joined Bennett, quarterback Russell Wilson, linebacker Bobby Wagner, tight end Jimmy Graham and others with head coach Pete Carroll. Carroll – despite being the NFL’s oldest coach at 66 years old – is an ageless wonder, with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, who chews wads of gum with more fervor than Melissa McCarthy-as-Sean Spicer.

Their decision was elegant and simple. Don’t participate. Stay in the locker room. The move could be interpreted any number of ways. They could be seen as choosing to stay above the fray, or it could be read as a rage against the machine: Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.

“The big thing was writing our own narrative and not allowing the media within that three-hour game to come up with a narrative and make it negative, positive whatever,” Avril says.

The organization released three quick statements, one from Seahawks President Peter McLoughlin, one from Carroll and one from the team, which read, in part: “Out of love of our country and honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.”

The Seahawks told their opponents of their plan and the Titans decided to stay in their locker room, too. So did the Pittsburgh Steelers, while other teams adopted the Seahawks’ 2016 stance of standing with interlocking arms.

“A lot of teams want to see what we are going to do and try and follow suit,” Avril says. “When they find out what we are doing, then they are down for it.” Several Seahawks are part of a phone message thread consisting of players from around the NFL, keeping everyone on the same page.

“I think more guys are waking up in the locker rooms,” Avril says.

In a league where coaches like the Houston Texans’ owner Bob McNair compares millionaire athletes to inmates running a prison, and where Trump pal, Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones, a week after taking a knee, threatens to bench players who continue to do so, the Seahawks are rebels with a cause. Their actions have been helping change the conversation around race in the NFL. “I think more guys are waking up in the locker rooms,” Avril says.

The week after Trump’s comments and the league-wide protest, the Seahawks announced the Players Equality & Justice for All Action Fund, “to support education and leadership programs addressing equality and justice” – the first of its kind in the NFL. In November, the Miami Dolphins did the same, creating a yearly fund for social-justice advocacy.

“We are having this conversation” Avril says. In my opinion, the objective for me is to get the dialogue going between blacks, whites, greens, oranges whatever. To get the dialogue going that is why I say it not necessarily white peoples fault for not understanding it, they have just never experienced it so how could you be mad. So I think that this is my objective – get the dialogue going and then hopefully some people with power, it only takes one of them to understand the plight, and oh maybe it will make the difference and make the change. Planting the seeds is the biggest thing. It might not change in my lifetime, but hopefully it changes in my children’s lifetime.”

In 2017, the NFL has been trying to play both sides. Though it has held several meetings on social justice and the anthem protests, the results have been murky. A recent announcement to give $89 million over seven years, with $5 million coming from coaches, to social justice issues was met with derision by several players – including Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers, who had knelt alongside Kaepernick, and Russell Okung of the Los Angeles Chargers because they believed that money was merely being moved from one set of charities (breast cancer, Salute to Service, for instance) to another.

NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy says those fears are unfounded. “Initiatives such as Crucial Catch and military appreciation will continue,” he says. “This is a separate initiative.” Both Reid and Okung left the Players Coalition, the organization co-founded by Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, which helped broker the deal, because, among other things, they disagreed with how Jenkins negotiated the terms.

On the one hand, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can’t risk angering the players – nearly 70 percent of who are black. On the other hand, the fans, who are 77 percent white, are the ones who pay the bills. It’s an ugly racial dynamic, and there are still only two people of color who are majority owners of an NFL team (the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Shahid Khan and Buffalo Bills’ Kim Pegula.) The NFL’s top-down hierarchal structure prevents any single player from having the same kind of power as LeBron James or Steph Curry.

“You know, it’s a cliché, but it’s true, that the NBA is a players league and the NFL is a coaches league,” says Dave Zirin, who is co-writing Michael Bennett’s book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, due in out in April. The NFL brass, Zirin says, “like to think of themselves as a military operation that’s very vertical, that’s very autocratic.”

The NFL’s rigid structure makes it hard for many of the players to speak out. When the league’s nickname is Not For Long, where standing out in anyway other than for your play, makes you a target.

“Anytime when you have a league that does not have guaranteed contracts, when you have a league where your next play can be your last, when you have a league where almost every player on the team is treated like they’re disposable, it creates built-in disincentives to speak out, which is why all of these players speaking out is all the more heroic,” says Zirin, who covers the intersection of sports and politics for the Nation. “Because on top of everything I just said, you know, football is also Americana.”

In Seattle, the top-down-structure is beneficial to the Seahawks’ politics. Pete Carroll, who espouses a live-and-let-live philosophy, helps foster an outspoken room. Toxic masculinity might have football in its grip, but the relentlessly positive Carroll doesn’t yell. He’s written a book with a title so deliriously upbeat, it’s called Win Forever.

“I have visited with and spoken to many other teams, but what the Seahawks have is very special,” says Nate Boyer, a former Seahawk and 10-year veteran of the Special Forces who convinced Kaepernick to kneel rather than sit during the anthem.

In 2015, Boyer, then a 34-year-old rookie, lasted one game as the Seahawks’ long snapper. He is now a sort of unofficial liaison between the military and the NFL. It’s not uncommon for the offensive players to not even know the names of the defensive players on other teams, Boyer says, but “[Carroll] really pushes for all those players to get to know the other guys. That is one of the reasons the Seahawks have really moved the conversation forward, more than any other team by far.”

In Detroit, where he played before Seattle, Avril says, “I would see the head coach walking down the hallway and I am trying to find the first left so we don’t have to cross paths because it is going to be awkward.” With the Seahawks, which is owned by Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and tech billionaire who donated $27,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Avril found himself having deep conversations with Carroll. “He actually tries to get a better understanding of everything,” he says.

And the city of Seattle, site of the 1999 WTO protests, is the perfect setting for a team of social-justice warriors. It has a socialist city council member, Kshama Sawant, who helped pass a $15-minimum wage, and Washington State helped spearhead the legalization of weed and same-sex marriage. Though Seattle is more than 69 percent white, there’s a strong Black Lives Matter and social-justice presence. During the 2016 election, only 8 percent of the voters pulled the lever for Trump.

“Seattle has an important history of resistance, [it’s] a city that’s been part of major social movements,” says Jesse Hagopian, an activist and teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, where last year the school’s entire football team took a knee – even the cheerleaders. “It’s exciting to have a football team that’s in a city like that, that can respond to the movements that are occurring,” says Hagopian, who has worked with Bennett, the defensive end, on several social-justice projects.

Still, there is discomfort with racial issues among the city’s liberal citizens. During the primary presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders was booted from the stage in downtown Seattle by Black Lives Matter activists, setting off a local firestorm.

“There’s a tension in Seattle,” says Hagopian. “There’s a liberal gloss that exists that tries to paint the picture of a city that is free of the problems of bigotry and racism that exists around the country, and that just isn’t the case,” he says, pointing to the recent shooting of Charleena Lyles, who was four months pregnant, in front of her three children by Seattle police. “The same kind of police brutality and institutional racism that exists around the country exists in Seattle.”

Bennett and Hagopian helped organize a rally on behalf of Lyles’ family last summer, raising money for her children’s college fund. “Michael did something that I think a lot of pro athletes haven’t done,” Hagopian says. “Not just issuing statements on Twitter and Facebook, but actually working with Charleena’s family and local activists to plan a rally.”

“Him becoming an organizer, that was something different,” Hagopian said. “It’s real activist work.”

Cliff Avril arrives at a steakhouse in downtown Bellevue, the nouveau-riche city across the water from Seattle, for lunch. He’s in sports-star chic, a gray hoodie, gray sweatpants, a glint of a gold necklace flickers from underneath his sweatshirt. His right wrist is dangling with rubber bracelets representing various causes – among them one for Haiti, where his family is from. Like several other players, he has his own non-profit, the Cliff Avril Family Foundation. Avril, like many of the football players on the team, is religious, or as he explains, he believes in a higher power. In football at any moment, it could be lights out, and your career could be over.

Avril knows. He’s spent the majority of his season on injured reserve after a hit that injured his neck. He got surgery and continues to go to the team meetings, getting in cardio because he can’t yet lift weights (“it sucks,” he says of cardio, echoing regular people everywhere), and going to the games, watching from the bench with envy and a huge case of FOMO.

Now 31, Avril came from the Detroit Lions to the Seahawks in 2013, the year before the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Detroit, both as a city and a team culture, could not be further from Seattle. When he first arrived, Avril didn’t know what to make of the Seahawks locker room, which seemed like a funhouse. “There is music playing in our locker room, there is music playing in the meeting room, we are shooting hoops before the meeting, after the meeting and I am like, ‘There is no way this goes on the whole season, right?’ I don’t believe it, you know?”

He arrived the same week as defensive end Michael Bennett, who is now his best friend on the team. Bennett had come from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they had both been starters. In Seattle, they were unsure of their role. They had been wined and dined, wooed, and signed, but when they arrived they weren’t starters. Carroll’s philosophy is “always compete,” and they still had to battle their way onto the top spots of the roster, competing, at first, against each other.

“We kind of just gravitated toward each other because we didn’t know anyone else on the team, you know,” Avril says. “And then once we started making plays and started understanding each other on the football field, it just gradually became a connection because we was both going through the same thing. Our wives were going through the same thing, new place, trying to figure things out.”

They are a close duo both on and off the field. When Avril’s foundation, the Cliff Avril Family Foundation, built an elementary school in Haiti, it was Bennett who joined him there for the groundbreaking, along with former teammate Marshawn Lynch. (The Seahawks declined to participate in this article).

Avril’s political awakening came slowly, as he and the other players got older and the locker-room talk gravitated toward social-justice issues. “That is when the light switch switches over,” he says.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you are just athletes, just shut up and play football.’ But how can you as a human being sit by and just watch all this stuff go on and not speak on it? For the life of me, I still don’t get how people feel that way.”

Avril is yin to Bennett’s Yang. He’s soft-spoken with a hint of shyness. If he weren’t 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, you might not notice him. Bennett, on the other hand, is the Seahawks’ circus’ ringmaster. His press conferences are notorious for memorable quotes and antics (“I think every wise person had a beard,” he once said during a press conference” – Moses, Caesar, Genghis Khan – I’m not saying he was wise, he was a good leader. I was just like, ‘Hey, when I get a chance, I’m going to grow me a beard.”)

Long before Kaepernick took a knee, Bennett was speaking out on social-justice issues.

In 2015, during the presidential primary, he gave press conferences wearing a Bernie Sanders hat and pin, a rare case of a football player directly endorsing a politician. He wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to training camp in 2016, and called out Cam Newton, and other big-name players like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady for not saying more. (His appeals seem to have worked in at least one way – both Rodgers and Brady have said that Kaepernick should be playing and voiced support for the protests.)

But Bennett can also be hot-headed and lash out, as he did on Sunday night against the Jacksonsville Jaguars, becoming involved in an end-of-game scuffle after lunging at Jaguars center Brandon Linder during victory formation, which led to several other players getting into fisticuffs on the field and getting ejected from the game.

“Honestly, like, he would be on 100 all the time if I wasn’t around, and I kind of mellow him out to like a 70,” Avril says. “And he brings me from like a 10 to a 40.”

And with Kaepernick currently without a team, it is Bennett who draws the ire of right-wing trolls. After the Titans game, a heavily photoshopped meme of him dancing in the locker room holding a burning American flag, surrounded by the team with Carroll egging him on, circulated on social media. Never mind that the scenario was completely implausible – it didn’t stop trolls from launching hateful, racist tweets at the player.

His profile rose even higher when he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed after the Mayweather-McGregor fight in Las Vegas in late August after reports of gunshots near the venue. Bennett released a statement alleging excessive use of force (he alleged the officer held a gun to his head) and racial discrimination on the part of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and was considering a lawsuit. He released a statement on Twitter: “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The Las Vegas police denied all wrongdoing.

Off the field, Bennett has become more deeply involved in activism. In addition to helping form Athletes for Impact, a non partisan coalition aiming to connect “athletes with communities” last year, Bennett helped organize Black Lives Matter at School day, and this year, he and Hagopian are working on a national action, Black Education Matters, during February, Black History Month. For Bennett, according to Hagopian, activism is as important as football. When he was awarded the NAACP Community Service for Racial Justice award in November, “he broke down in tears just telling the audience that he has won many sports awards – you know, he was the Pro Bowl MVP,” Hagopian says. “But this award meant so much more to him because this shows that the community really values him for who he is as a person, not just of a player.”

It would seem the admiration is mutual. At the end of the Black Lives Matter at School rally, Bennett gave a stirring speech as he took questions from the audience.

Says Hagopian, “He really won over Seattle’s parents, students and teachers when he said, ‘You know, I’m only going to be a football player for so many years, but I’ll always be black.”

After seeing the violence in Charlottesville, Bennett made the decision to sit during the anthem throughout the season, and Kaepernick’s protest was given new life in Seattle. Avril decided that he would sit too, and as the season progressed, several of his teammates began joining them on the sideline. Now, most of the defensive line sits during the anthem. The team’s new left tackle, Duane Brown, a world away from Bob McNair and the Texans, knelt with his new teammates.

One of the teammates who joined Bennett was Justin Britt, the center. From a religious, conservative family, Britt is one of a handful of white players across the league who has shown solidarity with his black teammates. He stands with a hand on Bennett’s shoulder during the anthem. “That was a difficult decision for him to make because of his parents. But now his parents understand why he did it, and they are OK with it,” Avril says. “As long as we get the conversation going, more players are coming around and understanding what the reasoning is – I think more players are getting it.”

Even Russell Wilson, the star quarterback. Infamously unwilling to say anything controversial, Wilson doesn’t sit on the bench during the anthem, but, says Avril, “Russell is understanding it more and more too. And he is coming around and he is asking more questions about it and he is getting more involved in it, which I think is really cool.”

Zirin points to the locker-room culture in Seattle as a gateway: “I really do think it’s because of the ideological friction in that locker room that Russell has stepped up in a whole other way,” he says.

After the Titans game, Wilson was his most outspoken on the topic of racial inequality to date. “It was sad to see that,” he said of Trump’s comments. “We believe in love. The only way to defeat the hate is by loving people.”

Normally apolitical, Wilson said later of the decision to stay in the locker room during the anthem: “I pray for my kids every day that when they go to school that racism isn’t a thing that stops them from going where they want to go. And it’s not just my kids. It’s your kids. It’s everybody’s kids. I think that’s really critical. That was on my heart, especially.”

Around the NFL, protest actions are taking hold with players on other teams, most notably on the Philadelphia Eagles, with Chris Long, who donated his entire season of paychecks to charity, and Malcolm Jenkins, a founding member of the Players Coalition, who like Bennett, was also nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award). Together, with Doug Baldwin and Titan’s player Delanie Walker they starred in the campaign ad “Salute To Service,” which aired near Veteran’s Day, waving the white flag to military members who don’t understand that the anthem protest isn’t anti-military.

The protests have turned off military families. Boyer says that many of the people he knows in the military won’t watch football anymore. Even if they know what the protests are about, police brutality and racial injustice, the protests are unwelcome. For most of the fans – who are white – the reality of racism is an inconvenient truth.

Boyer, who is white, is sensitive to both sides of the debate. “You know, when I was deployed, we would get back from a mission, it was really hard to deal with, and football was one of my escapes. During football season, I would watch a game and it was my little piece of America that I could run away to, I guess. My fantasyland,” he says. “During football, you look up at the stands and no matter what everybody looks like or thinks like or feels in politics, they are all wearing the same jerseys and high fiving each other – they don’t really care about that other stuff.”

While Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett draw the lion’s share of the media attention, it is Doug Baldwin, who has spearheaded many of team’s collective efforts. Besides being one of the league’s most underrated receivers (this is not debatable), Baldwin, who has a taut, intense demeanor on and off the field that earned him the nickname “Angry Doug” Baldwin is among the most eloquent of the players on the issues of social justice. Not even 30, he has the composure of a seasoned politician, and a seemingly photogenic recall of obscure facts. After Trump’s tirade, he issued a blistering comment to the media: “He acts like a child craving attention and any attention will do,” he wrote of the president.

In a way, this current iteration of the Seahawks was politicized the moment they won the NFC Championship game against Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers in 2014, and a berth in the Super Bowl. In a heated, emotional post-game interview with Erin Andrews, the sideline reporter, star cornerback Richard Sherman went on a now-legendary victory taunt directed at 49er receiver Michael Crabtree. Sherman tipped Crabtree’s ball to Malcolm Smith to win the game: “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that is the result you are going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me!”

The visual image of a 6-foot-3, seemingly angry black man with dreadlocks yelling next to a (seemingly) petite blonde white woman was all right-wing America could take, and social media caught fire with racist drivel directed at Sherman. Essays were written, some well-meaning, in defense of how Sherman wasn’t a “thug” from the “inner-city”–he had parents! Two of them! They were actually middle class! He went to Stanford! For communications! He was smart! The implication, left unsaid, was that he was not like those other athletes who came from the projects.

Sherman’s outspokenness on the racism directed at him by fans and media helped set the tone for the Seahawks and laid the groundwork for him, Baldwin and Bennett to push the social-justice issues further than any other team in the NFL. It’s one of the reasons the team is both loved and hated by football fans outside of the city. But it would be nothing if all they did was talk.

For four years, Avril’s foundation has hosted a fancy charity dinner, Dining to Make a Difference, but 2017’s dinner exceeded his expectations, raising a half million dollars. Post-Hurricane Matthew, Avril has focused his charity efforts on Haiti, where his family is from. On December 10th, Avril’s foundation flew two Haitian children to Jacksonville for the game against the Jaguars. In addition to going to the game, the kids visited the symphony, the zoo, a museum, and a Seahawks practice.

In 2016, Avril vowed to build a home for each sack (he got 11.5 sacks that season), and followed through on his word, building 12 homes. New Story and Mission of Hope donors matched him, bringing the total to 25. And working in tandem with the nonprofit, (formerly Free the Children), Avril built two buildings for an elementary school, with a third due to be finished in 2018. His original plan was to build a single building for the school. But his mind was soon changed once he saw the impact he could have firsthand.

“When the project got started I was like, ‘You know, the heck with this, I want to do the whole school,'” Avril says.

The buildings are simple constructions, but they are a far cry from the dilapidated make-shift shacks in which the students had been learning. Made of concrete, they are hurricane-proof: Now, there is shelter from the elements, hard walls and a roof to keep out the sun, the wind, the rain. When completed, they will serve 500 children.

Some fans might want him to “stick to football,” but Avril remains undeterred. “This is a pretty cool opportunity to be able to change lives, you know?”