CHICAGO (CBS) — As the debate continues over NFL players and other athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest various forms of racial injustice, former Bears coach Mike Ditka outraged many Monday when he claimed there hasn’t been any oppression in the United States in the past 100 years.
“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-Vikings game Monday night. “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. I think the opportunity is there for everybody; race, religion, creed, color, nationality. If you want to work, if you want to try and you want to put effort in, I think you can accomplish anything.”
“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 talking 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,” he said.
Hall of Fame Bears defensive end and Super Bowl XX MVP Richard Dent said he’s disappointed his former coach would say that when Ditka saw fellow teammates discriminated against by forced segregation.
Sports legal analyst Exavier Pope called Ditka’s comments “incendiary.”
“It should outrage not only black people, it should outrage everyone,” he said.
Pope said Ditka’s words have sparked a social media firestorm.
“My timeline has been lighting up all day about this issue,” he said.
Ditka’s comments show he’s out of touch, Pope said. Ditka played in the NFL from 1961-’72.
“When Mike Ditka was playing, there was a quota for black players on teams for the National Football League,” he said.
Ditka has vehemently criticized NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality and racial injustice.
“Is that the stage for this?” Ditka said on Westwood One. “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. 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.
“When I look at the whole thing, I’m not condemning anybody, or criticizing anybody. Respect the game, play the game. When you want to protest, protest when the game’s over. Protest whatever other way you want to. Football has been so good to these guys. It’s been so good to me. Enjoy it. Have fun with it. I don’t think it’s the stage for protest. I’m sorry. A lot of people disagree with that, but that’s my take on it.”
Ditka said if he were coaching now, he would require players to stand for the national anthem or they wouldn’t play.
“I don’t care who you are, how much money you make, 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.”
Some current NFL players fired back at Ditka’s comments, including Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett.