Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett are changing the value of exhibition football, one gesture at a time.
A year after Colin Kaepernick protested the excesses that make America less than its stated ideal, Lynch and Bennett sat through the song that states those very ideals, and Bennett said explicitly that it was a protest agaionst those excesses.
It wasn't anti-police, or anti-military or even anti-hot dog. It was about police EXCESSES and political EXCESSES and neo-Nazi terrorists, and Bennett in particular made it clearer than even Kaepernick did a year ago what it was he was saying. That's the benefit of seeing what has already happened and honing the message .
But the difference for exhibition games will be that the most important action is on the bench, and it will end before the game begins. There will be more players willing to consider such a protest because – and this is the one thing Kaepernick taught us – numbers matter. It is easy to isolate one person and try to ruin him or her, either through career damage or reputation damage.
But if Bennett and Lynch (and we still await Lynch's full explanation what his gesture meant or didn't mean) are part of a vanguard of players who are speaking out against the clear injustices that undermine what the nation can and should be. And to the extent that people pay attention to that, even if they cannot be bothered to see Charlottesville, VA, as the national horror it is, the message may resonate.
Or it may force the NFL to react by being less ambiguous about players' rights of speech, or more frontally attacking the anthem-protest movement with fines and/or suspensions. The Kaepernick decision was and is a muddy mess, but what happens next will by necessity be a more direct announcement of the league's position. And nobody will buy the every-team-makes-its-own-determination argument that has undercut the Kaepernick story.
Either way, events are overtaking the league and its players, and the good old days when players could just skip the controversy by quietly conforming are slowly but surely ending – one song and one bench at a time.