NFL Stars Boycott State-Sponsored Trip to Israel

By Sameer Rao Feb 16, 2017

ESPN/The Associated Press confirmed yesterday (February 15) that only five of 12 NFL stars scheduled to travel to Israel following the Super Bowl actually arrived in the country. Three of the players cited concerns about being used by the Israeli government to improve its image.

The Times of Israel first reported after the big game (February 5) that a delegation of 11 active players—the Seattle Seahawks’ Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, the New England Patriots’ Martellus Bennett, the Tennessee Titans’ Delanie Walker, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Mychal Kendricks, the New Orleans Saints’ Cameron Jordan, the Miami Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, the Arizona Cardinals’ Calais Campbell, the San Francisco 49ers’ Carlos Hyde, the Oakland Raiders’ Dan Williams and the Denver Broncos’ Justin Forsett—would visit various sites in Israel. They were to be joined by former player and ESPN commentator Kirk Morrison. All of the players are Black, and the Times said that their itinerary would include a visit to a Black Hebrew community.

Israel’s Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan told the Times that he hoped the visit would give the delegation "a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world."

"The ministry which I lead is spearheading an intensive fight against the delegitimization and BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanction] campaigns against Israel, and part of this struggle includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport," Erdan said. Yariv Levin, Israel’s tourism minister, added that he expected the players to "become ambassadors of goodwill for Israel" after the trip.

The Times later reported that the trip was the brainchild of Erdan and Levin’s ministries and the America’s Voices in Israel (AVI) initiative run by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. According to the organization’s website, the AVI program organizes week-long missions for media personalities and Black and Latinx community leaders to promote Israel’s image in the United States.

Michael Bennett reacted to Levin and Erdan’s comments in the statement above, which he tweeted on February 10. Referencing Muhammad Ali and John Carlos, two athletes who stood up for justice despite the risk to their careers, Bennett wrote that he would boycott the trip as a show of solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. "When I do go to Israel—and I do plan to go—it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives." 

Both Bennett’s brother Martellus and Stills retweeted Bennett’s message. They were the only other players who provided an explanation for their absence. ESPN/The Associated Press reports that Avril, Forsett, Hyde and Morrison also did not go on the trip.

Bennett’s statement followed an open letter from BDS-affiliated groups and individuals to the delegation, which was published in The Nation on February 9. "You now have an opportunity to speak out against the injustices facing Palestinians," read the letter, whose signatories included Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis. "We urge you to rethink your participation in this trip to Israel and the message it will send to your millions of fans who look up to you. The power athletes have in contributing to the fight for justice is evidenced in the legacy of the late Muhammad Ali, who himself was an advocate for Palestinian rights."