At the very least, Michael Bennett has become a distraction.
Nine days after the Eagles traded for Bennett, the former Seahawks defensive end was indicted by a Harris County, Texas, grand jury on a felony charge related to an incident last year during Super Bowl LI when he allegedly injured a 66-year-old paraplegic woman.
Bennett, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, “shoved his way onto the field” during the postgame celebration after NRG Stadium security personnel told him “he had to use a different entrance for field access.”
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, during a Friday afternoon news conference, said that Bennett forced open locked doors and then barreled through three workers – a man, a 28-year-old woman, and the alleged victim — to get onto the field.
The 66-year-old paraplegic woman suffered a strained shoulder, Acevedo said, when she was pushed back in her motorized wheelchair. The charge, injury to the elderly, carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Acevedo said that there was no video of the incident, but that a police officer was a witness. Bennett had yet to turn himself in, but his attorney, Rusty Hardin, told the Inquirer that his client was out of the continental United States and would surrender when he returns.
Hardin said that he had yet to meet the 32-year-old Bennett and therefore would refrain from speaking on his behalf. The Eagles said that they were gathering more information and wouldn’t have further comment because it was an ongoing legal matter.
The Eagles didn’t know about the pending indictment before the trade with the Seahawks, two team sources said, and it’s fair to assume that if they had they likely wouldn’t have gone through with the deal. Will they stand with Bennett until there is resolution — as they have for other players — or will they consider other options?
Far too many questions remain unanswered. Why wasn’t Bennett arrested on the spot if a police officer was in the vicinity? Why wasn’t there a video of the alleged altercation when security measures were heightened for a Super Bowl? Acevedo said that the victim needed medication after the alleged assault, but why were there no medical records of the shoulder injury?
And why did it take nearly 14 months to investigate, present a case to the grand jury, and charge Bennett? Acevedo said the indictment took so long because police had prioritized more significant cases. But if Bennett was as “morally bankrupt” and as unsavory a character as the police chief painted him during a blistering news conference, then why wasn’t his case a priority?
“I’m hopeful that when all the facts are out [Acevedo] would want to reconsider if he’d want to be that over the top with somebody who’s just been charged with a crime and is presumed innocent,” Hardin said.
The Eagles, meanwhile, have their first public nuisance since winning the Super Bowl, whether Bennett’s completely innocent or as guilty as Acevedo asserted. Both extremes, considering his past dust-up with Las Vegas police and Harris County’s lack of hard evidence, seem unlikely.
In August, Bennett was involved in an incident outside the Cromwell Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He claimed two police officers used excessive force and threatened “to blow my … head off.” The authorities claimed that video surveillance didn’t corroborate Bennett’s story and the local sheriff said there was no evidence to suggest that Bennett was racially profiled or was a victim of unnecessary force.
The incident, though, remains under investigation.
Bennett can be a polarizing figure. His supporters point to his activism and the work his foundation does in the community to help fight obesity. Last season, his every endorsement dollar and half the money he made in jersey sales went to charity. He was one of a few black players willing to protest social injustice, despite the backlash, by sitting during the national anthem.
Bennett’s detractors cite the protest as disrespectful to those who have fought for the American flag and to those who revere it. They see his sometimes-boorish behavior with the media and the immature sex jokes he has told in interviews as signs of immaturity.
Bennett also drew criticism in December when he appeared to roll into the legs of center Brandon Linder as the Jaguars ran out the clock in the victory formation. It wasn’t the first time that his on-the-field behavior has been questioned. Bennett has been penalized more than any other player in the NFL over the last five years.
Howie Roseman knew mostly what he was signing up for when he dealt for Bennett, essentially to replace Vinny Curry, who would eventually be released. He was getting a Pro Bowl player who could potentially upgrade the defensive line, but also a lightning rod who could potentially upset the Eagles’ winning dynamic.
Bennett has now already given the Eagles a headache they would rather not have to deal with. Owner Jeffery Lurie, coach Doug Pederson, and Roseman will likely have to address the indictment and other questions this week at the league meetings in Orlando.
Did the Seahawks know anything about the incident before the trade? Why didn’t Bennett inform the Eagles that he was being investigated by a grand jury?
Bennett struck all the right notes during his introductory news conference on Monday. He said that he was comfortable with possibly playing fewer snaps with the Eagles. He said that he just wanted to assimilate into the locker room. And when Bennett was asked if he planned on continuing his protest, he focused on football and being a leader.
“Right now, this is mostly about me fitting in with this team and finding out my role as a player,” Bennett said. “Let everything else happen as it happens.”
But Bennett can’t help but be outspoken. He tossed read meat to Eagles fans when he name-checked the NFC East quarterbacks to let them know that he was coming after them. And he took exception when he was asked how playing next to linemen like Fletcher Cox would help his career.
“I think … I’ve already had a great career – undrafted, done a lot of great things in the NFL,” Bennett said.
That he has, but it doesn’t give Bennett the right to act the way the Harris County DA alleges he behaved on Feb. 5, 2017. And it also doesn’t give the authorities the right to trump up charges if not accurate.
It could be some time before the truth comes to light — if it does at all – but until then the Eagles may have to ride the storm out with Bennett.