Chicago — Former Chicago Bears star and coach Mike Ditka, an adamant critic of National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination, said Monday in a national radio interview that this country has been free of oppression for at least a century.
“All of a sudden, it’s become a big deal now, about oppression,” Ditka told Jim Gray on Westwood One’s pregame show ahead of the Bears’ “Monday Night Football” loss to the Vikings. “There has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of. Now maybe I’m not watching it as carefully as other people.”
Setting aside what’s going on today, the discrimination and bigotry Ditka’s Bears teammates faced in the mid-1960s was memorably depicted in the much-beloved 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song,” starring James Caan as Brian Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers, the team’s first interracial roommates.
The Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964, the Voting Rights Act came the next year. The last 100 years in the United States have included efforts to eradicate decades of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation and their legacy. Discriminatory practices in housing, hiring, education, transportation, the armed forces, public accommodations and even pro sports have been fought.
Civil disobedience was a catalyst for some of the progress that has been made, but Ditka repeated his criticism of NFL players demonstrating during the national anthem before games.
“Is that the stage for this? If you want to protest, or whatever you want to protest, you’ve got a right to do that, but I think you’re a professional athlete, you have an obligation to the game,” Ditka said. “I think you have to respect the game. That’s what I think is the most important thing. I don’t see a lot of respect for the game. I just see respect for their own individual opinions. Opinions are like noses, we all have one. Some are good. Some are bad.”
Ditka insisted he wasn’t “condemning anybody or criticizing anybody” but urged players to “protest when the game’s over, protest whatever other way you want to” and said he would bench players who insisted on demonstrating during the anthem because it’s disrespectful.
“If you don’t respect our country, then you shouldn’t be in this country playing football,” he said. “Go to another country and play football. If you had to go somewhere else to try to play the sport, you wouldn’t have a job. So that would be my take. If you can’t respect the flag and the country, then you don’t respect what this is all about. So I would say, adios.”
Gray cited athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens who have taken on social injustices, but Ditka was unmoved.
“I don’t know what social injustices have been,” Ditka said. “Muhammad Ali rose to the top. Jesse Owens is one of the classiest individuals that ever lived. I mean, you can say, ‘Are you (saying) everything is based on color?’ I don’t see it that way. I think that you have to be color blind in this country. You’ve got to look at a person for what he is and what he stands for and how he produces, not by the color of his skin. That has never had anything to do with anything.”
Ditka said there are opportunities for everyone in the United States, regardless of race, religion, creed, color, nationality “if you want to work, if you want to try, if you want to put effort into yourself. I think you can accomplish anything, and we have watched that throughout our history of our country. People rise to the top and they became very influential people in our country by doing the right things.”
Gray reminded listeners Ditka, whom he called “America’s coach,” used to be a regular on the Westwood One pregame show and, occasionally, their 6 1/2 minute segment Monday included football talk.
Ditka suggested injuries to stars such as the Texans’ J.J. Watt and Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. might be the result of not practicing at a fast enough tempo but conceded “I don’t know how hard they practice anymore.”
Bears rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who was about to make his NFL regular-season debut, won Ditka’s approval as a talented, confident young player.
“I think he’ll go out and do a good job, and I want to say one thing. It’s not about the quarterbacks,” Ditka said. “You know, the other quarterback (Mike Glennon) wasn’t bad.”
Ending the segment, Gray joked that Ditka seemed to be at a loss for words.
“No, I’m not because I’m getting old, Jim, and I’m to the point right now, I’m fed up with a lot of it,” Ditka said. “I mean, I don’t see all this, the social injustice that some of these people see. I don’t. I know my dad worked in a steel mill and he brought home a paycheck and we ate dinner every night together. We didn’t have anything, but we didn’t need anything because we had a family. That was a good time in America. I would like to see us get back to that.”