Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka said during a radio interview Monday that he doesn't believe there has been oppression in the United States in the "last 100 years."
The former NFL tight end and head coach made his comments in an interview with Jim Gray on Westwood One's Monday Night Football pregame show when discussing the issue of players sitting or kneeling during the national anthem as a way to protest social injustice.
The issue has been a topic of national debate, which intensified after President Donald Trump's comments that NFL owners should "fire" players who don't stand for the anthem.
"All of a sudden, it's become a big deal now, about oppression," Ditka said. "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. ... If you want to work, if you want to try, if you want to put effort into yourself, I think you can accomplish anything."
Former linebacker Otis Wilson, who played for Ditka in Chicago from 1982 to '87, disagreed with his former coach's opinion in an interview Tuesday with ESPN Radio's The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap. The interview will air this weekend.
"Well, I guess if he walked in a black man's shoes, he would understand," said Wilson, who is an African-American. "I would say all lives matter, and the rules are not level for everybody. Let's say the average Joe on the street doesn't really have a platform. Colin [Kaepernick] has a platform, so he used his platform. That's his rights. Everybody has rights. So don't knock somebody for when they use it and how they use it because if it was against the laws or against the rules they would have sat him down and told him about that.
"This is America. You should be free to do what you want to do and leave it at that. Is America a lot easier than being in another country somewhere? Yes it is. But then, on the other hand, being a black man, there's a lot of things you can't do. Not being black, he doesn't understand that."
But to say this gives us a peek into you're heart. Jim crow laws, brown v. Board of education— Steve Smith Sr (@89SteveSmith) October 10, 2017
Great coach........ Clueless person https://t.co/liHBMqS9sF
Appearing on Fox & Friends on the Fox News Channel, fellow Hall of Famer Joe Namath advised Ditka to look up the meaning of oppression.
"Look up the meaning of oppression. Look up the definition of oppression, and you understand that it's obviously taken place," the former New York Jets quarterback said Tuesday.
The 77-year-old Ditka, who said Americans should be "color blind," maintained that he was not "condemning anybody or criticizing anybody," but he said a football game is not the right place for players to protest.
"If you were coaching ... would it be your policy that either you stand for the national anthem or you don't play?" Gray asked Ditka.
"Yes," Ditka said. "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.
"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."
In a conference call with media members Tuesday, Joe Lockhart, the NFL's executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said the league does not share Ditka's opinion.
"Everyone's entitled to an opinion. ... The league would not express that opinion by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
Ditka, who played tight end for the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys and was the head coach for the Bears (winning Super Bowl XX) and New Orleans Saints, is a former analyst for ESPN. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.