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Colin Kaepernick still hasn't landed another job, but his spirit undeniably lives on in the NFL.

The protests of Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett (undoubtedly) and Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch (conceivably) — neither stood for the national anthem before preseason games last weekend — served notice that the league can hardly distance itself from the nation's social turmoil by merely refusing to give Kaepernick an opportunity.

No, it's not that simple, Roger Goodell.

Kaepernick might have been the one who raised the level of consciousness — with the NFL as the backdrop — about issues of inequality, racism, social justice and police brutality last year. But clearly he isn't the only player with whom such issues hit home.

Bennett, who sat with a towel over his head during The Star-Spangled Banner before a Sunday exhibition game in Los Angeles, declared that he was moved by hate-mongering events that occurred in Charlottesville, Va., a day earlier and will sit out the anthem for the entire season.

"I just want to see people have the equality that they deserve," Bennett said Sunday. "And I want to be able to use this platform to continuously push the message of that."

More power to him.

If it's appropriate (and it is) to have a moment of silence before sporting events because of some tragedy that commands our collective sympathy, then players such as Bennett, Lynch or Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, who raised a fist in the spirit of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, have every right to protest as a means of acknowledging serious social issues that touch their nerves as American citizens.

The instant I heard that Bennett protested during the anthem, I was reminded of a conversation with him this month. The topic was legacy and purpose.

"I think a lot of times people get purpose and their job mixed up," Bennett told USA TODAY Sports. "But your purpose lasts a lifetime."

It's hardly a surprise that Bennett — an established ninth-year veteran who has long been outspoken on matters of race and social issues — would pick up the virtual baton left by Kaepernick.

Just before training camp, for instance, Bennett — active for years with various social causes — hosted a fundraising event to support the four children of Charleena Lyles, who was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers during an incident in her apartment in late June. He thinks his purpose leads him to give back, create bridges for opportunity and provide a voice for those who don't have the platform he enjoys — and is compelled to use.

"We're constantly reminded that black children don't matter, black women don't matter and especially black men," Bennett said this month.

He added that he sees it as his responsibility "to keep pushing the agenda forward and keep supporting people of color when they go through issues."

Over the weekend, Bennett and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who is white, issued rebukes of the alt-right factions responsible for the deadly rally in Virginia that you would have hoped would immediately come from President Trump, who has received various levels of support from several NFL owners.

In an NFL context, though, the events of the weekend added relevance as to why Kaepernick mounted protests last year.

Long, who grew up in Charlottesville and attended the University of Virginia, didn't demonstrate with an anthem protest but provided a thoughtful opinion on the matter. The gist: It's a matter of right or wrong.

Lynch didn't explain his actions, but Raiders coach Jack Del Rio relayed that "Beast Mode" told him that he's been sitting out the anthem throughout his career. Apparently, that went unnoticed. (Lynch was retired last season, when it surely would have been a hot topic.) Del Rio told Lynch that he didn't agree with his position on the anthem but respected him as a man.

Now if only Kaepernick had enjoyed similar regard to allow him to compete for a job in a league where so many less-talented quarterbacks — without Super Bowl appearances on their résumés — are given opportunities.

After all, in this time and place, keeping Kaepernick out of the NFL won't end the protests.

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August 16, 2017


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