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'It was never about the flag': NFL veteran Martellus Bennett on Trump and kneeling

Daniel Roberts

One month after announcing his retirement from the NFL, 10-year veteran tight end Martellus Bennett joined the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast this week to talk about leaving football and turning his attention full-time to his company The Imagination Agency, which already has seven full-time employees.

Bennett also addressed President Trump’s tirades against the NFL last season, the league’s television ratings decline, what should change about the NFL, and how he views his own legacy. You can listen to the full candid chat above.

NFL player protests and the political drama that hung over the league all last season was the biggest story in sports in 2017, and it was a business story because the tension likely contributed to a rating decline. Trump tweeted repeatedly about NFL leadership, criticizing players who kneeled to protest police brutality and criticizing team owners for letting them kneel. In surveys, many fans claimed all the politics turned them off from watching football.

On Trump’s NFL tweets: ‘That was a great ploy’

Bennett says that Trump’s tweets about NFL player protests, and the frenzied coverage of the protests, did not go unnoticed by players, even in a league in which they’re used to tuning out distractions.

“How many other people you know, a president calls guys sons of bitches? That was a big issue that a lot of guys dealt with,” he says. “And a lot of guys jumped into the kneeling thing because of that. By doing so, though, it lost a lot of the identity of what it was, because now it becomes resistance toward the president, and not resistance toward police brutality and the unethical things going around in the world. So the messaging got switched. And that was a great ploy by the president to flip the message. It’s not about the flag, it was never about the flag. It’s about protesting the ideas that America stood on.”

On NFL ratings: ‘They have to be careful with over-saturating’

Yahoo Finance asked Bennett for his take on why the league’s primetime ratings fell by nearly 10% last season. Was it the politics? And what does the NFL need to change to fix it?

Bennett mentioned a different popular theory to explain the ratings dip: too many games. “I think they have to be careful with over-saturating the world with the games,” he says, “because now you don’t get that break to miss it. You got Monday, you got Thursday, you got Sunday. And Thursday Night Football: they sold it to Amazon, they sold it to Twitter, they sold it to Yahoo, how is that even possible? They’re making so much money on that. For the owners, Roger Goodell is a mastermind. He’s giving them everything they want, he’s filling their pockets, he’s doing a great job for the owners. The players, we get left out a little bit. They’re making so much money off of the players, and without the players there is no game. So I would like to see guaranteed contracts for guys.” (The NFL, unlike the NBA or MLB, does not guarantee player contracts if a player gets injured and misses the season.)

Martellus Bennett on Yahoo Finance Midday Movers on April 9, 2018
Martellus Bennett on Yahoo Finance Midday Movers on April 9, 2018

On the Patriots: ‘Everything is upfront’

Bennett won a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots in the 2016 season, then played for the Green Bay Packers the next year but returned to the Patriots near the end of the 2017 season; his return was controversial.

“It was crazy because a lot of people felt like I finagled it to make that happen,” he now says. “But 30 other teams could have claimed me. The Pats claimed me.”

Bennett played for five teams in his 10 NFL seasons, but he says the Patriots are different, and that his time with the organization helped prepare him to run his own business. “It was the first team I ever went to where I got an employee handbook,” he says. “And I was like, ‘Wait, what? An employee handbook?’ It was the first place where you felt like, they’re running a business, you’re part of a business, this is your role in the business, this is what we expect from you.”

He adds that he observed a policy of transparency around the franchise: “The thing about the Patriots is the honesty around the building, from top to bottom,” he says. “Everyone is honest with everyone. If someone feels a certain way, they’re honest about it, Bill’s honest about it, he tells you exactly what he’s feeling. Some teams like to deal with issues with players in private, but everybody knows what’s going on, but then nobody knows the result of what really happened, so it creates gossip. With the Patriots, there’s not room for that, because everything is upfront.”

On business: ‘I felt like my impact was going to come after I got done playing’

For the next few years at least, Bennett will almost surely be first introduced, in any venue, as “former NFL player.” But he says his ambition is to become better known for his business than for his time on the field.

“I felt like I never made the impact on the world that I wanted to make as a football player,” he says. “I’m not going to the Hall of Fame or anything like that… but I feel like I’m going to end up in the Hall of Fame of life. I felt like my impact was going to come after I got done playing, when I could really focus on how I want to change the world through the things I create and the stories I tell.”

Martellus Bennett’s legacy, he hopes, will not be Super Bowl champion tight end. It will be founder of the Imagination Agency: “When I die, I don’t want somebody to be like, ‘Yeah, he was great in that Super Bowl.’ I want my daughter to say, ‘My dad traveled the world, he created this thing.’ Even if I have a son, I can’t hand him football. I cannot give that to him. But by creating a company that is built off imagination and creativity, my daughter could come in and run that. That’s a legacy.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our sports business video series and podcast.

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