Vikings players lock arms during the national anthem before a game against the Bears. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Even before this NFL season, which has featured team owners linking arms with players as shows of solidarity amid sharply critical comments from President Trump, some players were noting that the original message of protests during the national anthem had been largely lost. To them, the cause of bringing attention to racial injustice, in particular police brutality against black men, had been overshadowed by a heated national discussion over the merits of taking a knee during the national anthem.

To former NFL coach and ESPN analyst Mike Ditka, however, that cause made no sense to begin with. In a pregame interview before a radio broadcast of Monday night’s game between the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, he said, “There has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of.”

Saying that “you have to be colorblind in this country,” Ditka told Jim Gray on Westwood One that “the opportunity is there for everybody.” He added that the place to protest was at “a ballot box,” and that people should “respect” the winners of elections.

Ditka quickly was condemned, particularly by Joe Namath, for his comments. The Hall of Fame quarterback suggested Tuesday that Ditka “look up the meaning of oppression. Look up the definition of oppression, and you understand that it’s obviously taken place.”

By late Tuesday, Ditka was trying to straight out what he meant.

“The characterization of the statement that I made does not reflect the context of the question that I was answering and certainly does not reflect my views throughout my lifetime,” he said in a statement. “I have absolutely seen oppression in society in the last 100 years and I am completely intolerant of any discrimination. The interview was about the NFL and the related issues. That’s where my head was at. I was quoted in the interview stating, ‘You have to be color blind.’ I stated that you should look at a person for what they are and not the color of their skin. I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”

Ditka, 77, and Gray were talking about the team with which he is most associated, the Bears, when Gray asked about Vice President Pence walking out of an NFL game Sunday because of anthem protests, and about the pregame demonstrations in general.

“Is this the stage for this?” Ditka said. “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 don’t see a lot of respect for the game, I just see respect for their own individual opinions. … Respect the game, play the game, when you want to protest, protest when the game’s over, protest whatever other way you want to.”

With Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones making news for saying that his players would either stand for the anthem or get benched, Gray asked Ditka if that would be his policy, as well, were he in charge of an NFL team.

“Yes,” Ditka replied, “I don’t care who you are, or how much money you make, if you don’t respect our country, you shouldn’t be in this country playing football. Go to another country and play football. If you had to go to somewhere else and try to play this sport, you wouldn’t have a job.”

“If you can’t respect the flag and this country, then you don’t respect what this is all about, so I would say: Adios.”

Ditka has not been shy in the past about expressing political views, and he was an early supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign. Starting well before the election, Trump has taken frequent shots at former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the anthem protests during the 2016 preseason, and Ditka has followed suit, saying a year ago that he had “no respect” for the player.

“My choice is that I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka added at the time.

The Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, who has been raising his fist during the anthem and has worked toward helping create better relations between police and community members, offered an explanation Monday of some of the concerns felt by NFL players. “I think we’ve made that very clear that what we are demonstrating about has nothing to do with the flag but everything to do with social injustice, racial inequality and the things that Jerry Jones and other owners who are making statements have yet to address,” the safety said to NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“And so I’d love to hear their takes on that part of the conversation, what these players are trying to draw attention to,” Jenkins continued. “Their thoughts on, you know, police brutality and racial inequality, education gap, the economical gap in these communities that they make money in. And I’d love to hear that part of the conversation so that it’s not so argumentative, so that it’s not isolating the players who are trying to do the right thing with the platform that they have.”

Later on Monday, Gray asked Ditka, “For those who want social justice, and for those who look back at the lives of Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens, and John Carlos and Tommy Smith, your response would be?”

“I don’t know what social injustices have been,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee replied. “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 that everything is based on color? I don’t see it that way.

“I think that you have to be colorblind 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.

“But all of a sudden, it’s become a big deal now, about oppression. 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, if you want to put effort into yourself, I think you can accomplish anything.”

The former coach, who won a Super Bowl with the Bears before a head coaching stint with the New Orleans Saints, said in 2013 that not running against Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race was the “biggest mistake I’ve ever made.” He told a Chicago radio station last year that “Obama’s the worst president we’ve ever had.”

“He would be great to play golf with,” Ditka said at the time of Obama. “He’s not a leader. This country needs leadership. It needs direction.”

On Monday, Ditka made an apparent reference to Obama’s successor, telling Gray that NFL players are “protesting an individual,” adding, “That’s wrong, too.”

“You know, you’ve got a ballot box, you’ve got an election. That’s where you protest,” Ditka said. “You elect the person you want to be in office, and if you don’t get that person in office, I think you respect the other one, that’s all.”

“Football has been so good to these guys,” Ditka said of NFL players on the pregame show. “It’s been so good to me. Enjoy it, have fun with it, and I don’t think it’s the stage for protests. I’m sorry, a lot of people disagree with that, but that’s my take on it.”

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