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ESPN Commentator, Seahawks Player Battle Over Kaepernick's Activism

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick talks with Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett following a game Sept. 25, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Michael Bennett and Stephen A. Smith clashed over social media this week after the ESPN pundit criticized the Seattle Seahawks defensive end for defending Colin Kaepernick’s social activism.

Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, created a media firestorm last season when he refused to stand for the national anthem at preseason and regular season games in protest of black oppression in America. He became socially active following a series of controversial deaths of black men at the hands of police officers, and he has pledged to donate $1 million to charitable causes.

Bennett, during an appearance in D.C. in April, spoke in support of Kaepernick’s actions, saying the NFL has politically blacklisted the quarterback for his protests.

This week, Smith described Bennett as “usually smart, incisive, conscientious and fearless,” but the boisterous ESPN commentator said that Bennett has conveniently ignored Kaepernick’s decision to forgo voting in November’s election. Smith said that any black athlete who is quick to cite the mainstream accomplishments of civil rights activists like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., should also remember Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, three civil rights workers who were murdered in June 1964 in Mississippi while registering African-Americans to vote.

“So many others have shed real blood, real sweat, real tears, and it damn sure wasn’t in the midst of making $12 million in a season,” Smith said Wednesday during the ESPN program First Take. “Remember the real ones that represented first, not just the ones you happen to be pretty damn cool with.”

Smith said he’s rooting for Kaepernick to land a job in the NFL. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said earlier this week that his team is considering signing the outspoken quarterback, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013 and the NFC championship in 2014 before splitting time with Blaine Gabbert for two seasons in San Francisco. Gabbert signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals earlier this month. Bennett in April said that Kaepernick’s unemployment is not based on talent, given the quarterbacks that had been signed to that point, which included Bears quarterback Mike Glennon, 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer and Jets quarterback Josh McCown.

Bennett responded to Smith via Twitter on Thursday, describing the ESPN commentator as someone who is “all talk and no action.” The 31-year-old defensive end agreed that voting is important, and noted that “I never said it wasn’t.”

“It’s so easy to talk on television and not get your hands dirty and do the real work. It’s so easy to divide people by playing on fears and lies instead of trying to highlight the hard work that athletes do in the community,” Bennett wrote.

Bennett cited his community work with Angela Davis, John Carlos and other community activists and “countless hours” spent in minority communities, including efforts at orphanages in Haiti, American juvenile detention centers and community gardens meant to combat food shortages. Bennett wrote that he understood the tweet would make Smith’s job easier by giving him more material to “yell about tomorrow, but you are spreading so much ignorance that it’s hard to be silent.”

“I encourage you to join me, in person and checkbook, and help build up our communities,” Bennett wrote.

Smith addressed the Twitter exchange on Thursday’s airing of First Take, saying he has nothing but love for Bennett, and didn’t feel the need to reach out to him personally because nothing he said was offensive.

“What I pointed to is that you’ve got three individuals who were civil rights workers in Mississippi, who died trying to get African-Americans registered to vote in the South,” Smith said.