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One of the NFL’s most outspoken activists is facing 10 years in prison on questionable charges

None of this makes any sense.

Running back Thomas Rawls #34 of the Seattle Seahawks stands with center Justin Britt #68, right, to join defensive end Michael Bennett #72 on the bench during the national anthem before the game at CenturyLink Field on September 17, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (CREDIT: Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images)
Running back Thomas Rawls #34 of the Seattle Seahawks stands with center Justin Britt #68, right, to join defensive end Michael Bennett #72 on the bench during the national anthem before the game at CenturyLink Field on September 17, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (CREDIT: Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images)

This week, NFL star Michael Bennett released a book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. Yet for a top athlete, there has been relatively little publicity this week for the memoir’s launch. That’s largely because all of his publicity events were canceled after he was indicted on a felony elder abuse charge in Houston, Texas.

Though Bennett — a former Super Bowl-champion defensive end with the Seattle Seahawks who was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles during this offseason — is a supremely talented football player, he is perhaps best known these days for his outspoken activism against racism and police brutality. Both subjects are addressed extensively in his book.

But last month, Bennett’s efforts took an unexpected turn when he was indicted on felony abuse charges for allegedly pushing a 66-year-old paraplegic security worker while he was rushing onto the field at NRG Stadium in Houston to celebrate his brother’s Super Bowl victory with the New England Patriots on February 5, 2017. In a bizarre, over-the-top press conference, Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo addressed the indictment by calling Bennett “morally corrupt” and “morally bankrupt.”

“It’s very offensive to me that a man who is supposed to be an example, a professional athlete, would think it’s okay to treat people like this,” Acevedo said.

Bennett, who unequivocally denies the charges, faces up to 10 years in prison if he’s convicted. Ten. Years.

It turns out, you don’t need to read his book to be left feeling uncomfortable (though, by all means, read the book). A closer look at the case against Bennett — and the odd timing of the investigation and the charges — is enough to make anyone uneasy. Right now, there are far more questions than answers.

Wait, what exactly is this case about again?

Bennett’s brother Martellus is also a player in the NFL — or was, until he announced his retirement last month. In 2017, Martellus made it to the Super Bowl as a member of the New England Patriots. Michael came to Houston to cheer on his brother, and definitely had a credential to get onto the field. We know this because Getty Images has a photo of Bennett on the field pre-game, prominently displaying his credential.

Michael Bennett Jr. of the Seattle Seahawks walks on the sideline before Super Bowl 51 between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (CREDIT:  Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Michael Bennett Jr. of the Seattle Seahawks walks on the sideline before Super Bowl 51 between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (CREDIT: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Patriots infamously ended up coming back from a 28-3 deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons and win the title. Bennett, naturally, wanted to celebrate with his brother on the field after the game.

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According to Acevedo, it was at this point that Bennett “forcibly opened the locked doors” at the south side tunnel near the stadium and in the mayhem, pushed back three security personnel: One male, one white 28-year-old female, and one black 66-year-old paraplegic female. Though Acevedo initially said that Bennett pushed the paraplegic woman onto her butt, the detective on the case clarified that because her motorized wheelchair weighed approximately 800 pounds, he merely pushed her shoulder back and sprained it.

A police officer allegedly witnessed this take place, and tried to stop Bennett to question him. At that point, Acevedo says, Bennett refused to speak with the officer, and directed a profanity-laced outburst towards the officer and the security personnel. “Fuck you, you all must know who I am, and I could own this motherfucker,” said Bennett, according to Acevedo. “I’m going on the field whether you like it or not.” The officer remained at the security post, Bennett went on field to celebrate with his brother, and the officer filled out an official report of the incident that evening.

What’s Bennett’s side of the story?

Bennett appeared in a Houston court last week and posted bail. His lawyer, Rusty Hardin, spoke with the opposing counsel and said Bennett will plead “not guilty” if the case goes to trial.

“He just flat-out didn’t do it. It wasn’t a case of, ‘He didn’t shove her that hard,’ or anything like that,” Hardin told Philly.com. “He never touched her.” Hardin said that most relatives of New England Patriots players were trying to get on the field after the game — understandably — and that someone else might have shoved the paraplegic employee. However, Hardin says he does have witnesses who will say that Bennett didn’t shove her.

Is there any video of the incident?

Not that we know of. Though Bennett’s sister suggested there was video in since-deleted tweets posted right after his indictment, Acevedo said there is no video, and Hardin has given no indication that Bennett’s camp has video, either.

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The primary eyewitness for the District Attorney’s office seems to be the police officer who confronted Bennett at the time, the one who Bennett allegedly cussed at.

There is, however, definitive proof that Bennett made it onto the field.

New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) poses for a selfie with his brother Michael Bennett who plays for the Seattle Seahawks while on the field for pre game warm ups.  The Atlanta Falcons play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on Feb. 5, 2017. (CREDIT: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) poses for a selfie with his brother Michael Bennett who plays for the Seattle Seahawks while on the field for pre game warm ups. The Atlanta Falcons play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on Feb. 5, 2017. (CREDIT: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Why did it take so long for the police to press charges?

The incident took place 14 months ago, in a very public place, and Bennett is a famous athlete whose schedule is often public knowledge. So, why are we just hearing about it now?

According to Acevedo, though a police officer did write up the report immediately after the Super Bowl, it wasn’t assigned to a detective until May. That detective did not start the investigation until late September.

Here is where things get a bit suspect.

Last September, a few weeks after Bennett announced that he would remain seated during the national anthem for the entire NFL season, he released a public statement alleging that police officers in Las Vegas racially profiled him after shots were fired at a casino. Bennett said officers chased after him, forced him onto the ground, put a gun near his head, threatened to “blow [his] fucking head off” and jammed a knee into his back while he was on the ground.

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“I have always had a strong conviction that protesting or standing up for justice is just simply, the right thing to do,” Bennett wrote in a letter announcing that he would be looking to file a civil suit against the LVMPD. “This fact is unequivocally, without question, why before every game, I sit during the national anthem — because equality doesn’t live in this country and no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a ‘Nigger,’ you will be treated that way.”

Just days after Bennett made that public statement, the Houston police began their investigation into Bennett’s case. Remember, this was seven months after the alleged incident occurred.

Acevedo is adamant that this isn’t a conspiracy. Instead, he says that the Houston PD prioritized other cases that they thought posed more of a direct threat to the community, such as shootings and stabbings. Even though they believe Bennett is a “morally corrupt” person who goes around abusing disabled seniors, they assessed that he was not a high risk to others.

Ten years is a long time. Why is Bennett facing so much prison time?

Bennett’s punishment for this crime could be up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. That’s because he is being charged with elder abuse, and elders are a protected class in Texas, as are children and the disabled. (Seniors in Texas are considered anyone 65 or older, and the alleged victim is 66.)

The Texas Penal Code states that “a person commits the offense of injury to an elderly or disabled individual if they intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence, by act or intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly by omission, causes to a child, elderly individual, or disabled individual.”

As pointed out by The Stranger, the law, which is codified in Section 22.04 of Texas’ penal code, “reads like a criminal statute written to ensure that caretakers, such as teachers, parents or nurses, that intentionally injure those in their care get a sterner penalty than a normal assault charge.” In other words, this does not seem like a law that was written to apply to cases like Bennett’s. With some interpretive finessing though, a lawyer could make the case fit.

If his case does go to trial, and Bennett is found guilty, his sentence will depend on whether he harmed the security worker intentionally or recklessly. The former would put 10 years in prison on the table, while the latter would carry a maximum sentence of two years in state jail.

Is the Houston PD targeting Bennett because of his outspoken activism against police brutality?

This, truly, is the crux of the issue. And, of course, it’s the hardest question to answer.

The fact that the investigation began right after Bennett accused the LVMPD of racial bias, and the charges were made public two weeks before his book — which talks about racism and police brutality — was released, certainly raises questions.

Then again, the District Attorney in Houston, Kim Ogg, is a Democrat with the backing of several notable progressive groups typically sympathetic to Bennet’s cause. She pushed for criminal justice reform, and has battled against police unions in the past. And, while Acevedo has appeared on sites like InfoWars multiple times, he’s usually on there pushing a more progressive perspective. These aren’t exactly staunch conservatives who have publicly spoken out against black athletes protesting.

Still, the language Acevedo used in the press conference announcing the charges was pretty telling. He complained about Bennett’s “complete and total disregard for the authority of that officer.” He said he was “grateful” that they were pursuing accountability for “a guy who decides to push a 66-year-old black female paraplegic, a little old woman, who is trying to make a living, making a fraction of what he’s making.”

He repeatedly called Bennett “pathetic” and shook his head in disgust during the press conference.

“Mr. Bennett might think that because he’s an NFL player … rules don’t apply to him,” Acevedo said. “We certainly weren’t going to tolerate this behavior. If this is the way you treat women, it’s very telling of his character.”

He used harsher language to criticize Bennett than many law enforcement personnel use to condemn murderers, which makes this seem like part of a personal agenda.

What is next for Michael Bennett?

Dave Zirin, who co-wrote the book with Bennett, wrote an article for Colorlines about Bennett’s fear of being silenced.

Michael is now fighting for his freedom and is in no position to promote his book. What’s heartbreaking for me is that there is a section of the book called “On Fear,” where Bennett says: “As I write this now, I’ll tell you, I’m afraid. I fear not being heard. I fear that people will just see the gesture of sitting during the anthem and not hear my reasons, or they’ll accept the distortions put out by the media. That’s why I’m writing a book, because this isn’t about sound bites or tweets or Instagram quotes. This is about trying to push forward with a movement that can benefit all of us.”

The good news for Bennett is that as of now, his new team, the Philadelphia Eagles, are sticking by his side. Hardin also feels confident that if the case does get to trial, they will win. But Bennett has a long fight ahead of him.