Mike Ditka’s comments on anthem protests underscore larger, chilling effect

 Phil Thompson

Phil Thompson
Chicago Tribune

The former Bears coach said he hasn’t seen oppression in the United States in 100 years, but his own take on national anthem protesters — that players who kneel should get benched or even leave the country — only underscores this current chilling effect on African-American sports figures exercising their free speech rights, particularly if their views or forms of protest offend the majority.

And it’s not just Ditka who participates in this intimidation. It’s the football fans who, in essence, tell players we’ll take away your ratings and tickets and merchandise sales, and by extension your paychecks, unless you acquiesce to our view of patriotism. It’s President Donald Trump pressuring owners to cut any player who dissents. It’s Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who kneeled in “unity” with the players then backpedaled like a cornerback when he decreed any “disrespectful” player of his caught kneeling “will not play. Period.” It’s NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who knows he can’t order players to stand, but strongly suggests that they do and adds that their method of calling out injustice is “eroding the unifying power of our game, and now is dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country.”

Collectively, their positions carry weight because they have the power to affect livelihoods. Trump and other critics of the protesters pat themselves on the back for what they believe is their role in keeping quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ignited this controversy by kneeling in August 2016, out of work.

 Tennessee Titans receiver Rishard Matthews told ESPN in August, “I know there are guys who want to take a knee or stand up as well, but a lot of people come to this league from nothing. Job security is everything. It’s not a secret that guys who protest on teams might be gone.”

That’s the irony of the message from NFL brass, politicians and some football fans: Stand for this symbol of freedom — or else. And by the way, know your place. When players dissent by kneeling during the anthem, it’s dividing the country. When they’re pressured to stand — by their fans, their commissioner, even their president — it’s unifying.

But unifying for whom, if one side still feels ignored or silenced?

Ditka’s original comments about the lack of oppression, as inane and easily dismissed as they are (and even he walked them back in a seemingly half-hearted apology Wednesday), echo a subconscious belief by some white Americans that if a reality doesn’t exist for them, it doesn’t exist. Many black Americans have said their cause of reforming police conduct toward black people and oppressive laws and policies has been largely lost in this anthem debate. The ready argument from the opposition, before a dialogue even begins, is that the venue of the game is inappropriate to bring up these issues, that players should stay out of politics and stick to sports.

But if sports should stay out politics, then politics should stay out of sports. It doesn’t and hasn’t for a long time. Politics rarely misses a chance to celebrate nationalism.

Nationalism is why athletes are in position of having to choose between standing and not standing in the first place. During World War I, the anthem was sung at the beginning of a World Series game, and then it became standard practice after World War II. Presidents show their faces at big games for their photo opps and to lock arms with our national pastimes.

Politics — or at least Trump’s highly nationalist version of politics — is why the president has repeatedly insinuated himself into this football debate, and in the latest example, orchestrated Vice President Mike Pence’s own “protest” by walking out on a Colts game soon after some players kneeled.

It’s why Trump blasted ESPN personality Jemele Hill for the mere suggestion that fans have the option of boycotting an NFL owner’s advertisers as a form of protest. And he, the president of the United States, all but called for her job by implying she’s responsible for the network’s declining ratings. ESPN suspended her for two weeks for violating the company’s social media guidelines.

Amid the flag waving, there has been a lot of finger-wagging and no-so-thinly veiled threats directed at black players and media figures for their lack of patriotism; for their ingratitude for the privilege of being high earners in this country.

This is not a new dilemma for African-American athletes. As beloved as Jackie Robinson is by people of all races, and as much as he endured silently to pave the way for integration in sports, even he struggled with the anthem. He wrote in his autobiography, “Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. (Branch) Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem, I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

In hindsight, the civil rights issues of Robinson’s era were more clear cut and pressing, so some in a post-Obama society find it reasonable to question why any African American athlete wouldn’t just simply to stay out of this fight, or at least not bring it to the game.

But for the black community, sports has always been woven into social change. Our very entry into mainstream athletics was won through blacks and whites rebelling against what was then the American norm. And for much of the last century, many of the leading agents of change for black people have emanated from one of three arenas: the church, music and sports; and sports in particular became a space where a minority’s grievances couldn’t be marginalized.

The late Muhammad Ali is celebrated now for political stances for which he was vilified then. Perhaps Tommie Smith and John Carlos wouldn’t have been as effective talking about black empowerment on their “own time” as they were when they raised fists on the Olympic medal stand in 1968, an act that prompted Brent Musburger, then a columnist for the Chicago American, to denounce them as “a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers” who were “enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.” (Incidentally, on Twitter Sunday, Musburger mocked the 49ers‘ losing record since they “instigated protest” by allowing Kaepernick to take a knee — a tweet that received more than 8,000 likes.)

 In the ’90s, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf closed his eyes and prayed during national anthems to support of people he saw as oppressed, and like Kaepernick, he received hate mail and was essentially blackballed from his sport.

As for Kaepernick, he told NFL Media’s Steve Wyche in 2016, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Jay Coakley, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and author of “Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies,” said the prevailing attitude toward Kaepernick and other anthem protesters goes beyond sports fans’ irritation at having their sense of escapism interrupted.

“Whiteness is associated with patriotism,” Coakley said. “Any dark skin of any kind is not, and, in fact, people are especially sensitive to behavioral displays of (minority) people to make sure they’re on the same page as us whites. If they act in a way that they’re not on the same page, then those people of color are in trouble.”

Coakley said such a divide stems from unresolved conflicts about race and discrimination, “which people don’t want to hear about.”

“It’s the five-century issue in the United States,” he said. “Name another issue that has been percolating for five centuries in this country and creating forms of inequality and forms of behavior that are just uncharacteristic according to American values. There is no other issue.”

plthompson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @_phil_thompson