The Colin Kaepernick-national anthem non-controversy has been pretty thoroughly explored at this point. You can even find two Paste contributors’ takes on it, here and here. By now, most rational interpreters of our Bill of Rights have come to the conclusion that regardless of your opinion on the method of Kaepernick’s protest, he has every right to perform it. (The New Yorker basically put the nail in this coffin with an excellent piece about the 1943 Supreme Court case that stands behind protests of “national symbols.”)
Mike Ditka, the loudmouth ex-coach of the Chicago Bears, still disagrees.
“If they don’t like the country, they don’t like our flag … they can get the hell out,” he told ESPN just two weeks ago.
You know the last time I heard that phrase? I was in a janky-ass bar in Dickson, TN. I had been dragged out there by a friend to see the country band Trailer Choir play a show. They weren’t half bad, if you like songs about being in the South and drinking beer. They even had a funny song about things you can put in a backpack.
But when we walked into the place, Trailer Choir wasn’t onstage yet. It was some dude—the bar’s owner, it turns out—in a cowboy hat and a see-through American flag vest, ranting about how much he loved our country. F-words flew from his mouth more plentifully than spittle. It was a diatribe that would have made a bald eagle cry tears of liquid freedom. Then, he launched into a ditty whose actual title is lost to my Inside Out memory dump but which I choose to recall being, “I Love America, And If You Don’t, You Can Get The Hell Out.”
I laughed. I was in the Deep South. For better or worse, this is a commonly served brand of patriotism in that part of the country, parroted blindly by good, God-fearing people who haven’t the will or the ability to cope with the fact that it’s no longer 1946. To some extent, I empathize with these folks. It’s hard to come to terms with a country where your position of color-based power is slowly being eroded, particularly when you’re living in an area of the country that is both relatively poor and far from the urban engines of social change. One of the few problems I have with the modern progressive movement is that it often lacks empathy for less well-off, lesser-educated white people; their struggle is not nearly as righteous as that of oppressed minorities, but it exists, and lasting change will only be achieved by either conquering them (not ideal) or taking their plight into account.
But I’m from Chicago, a city that can’t just turn a deaf ear to the cries of America’s racial tensions. This is a city that put protest on national television in 1968. This is a city that has essentially forsaken 60 percent of its land area, allowing vast swaths of its South and West Sides to burn with gang violence and squalid indigence while its downtown—complete with its very own, very obnoxious TRUMP Tower—gleams for tourists. This is a city that erupted when Laquan McDonald was shot, a city that nearly erupted when the current Republican presidential nominee visited in March.
This is a city that lionizes the 1985 Chicago Bears and Mike Ditka.
Now, a fair few Chicagoans I know and respect have disavowed this clown. But many others have not. And so long as Ditka is given a voice on ESPN and elsewhere, he will be associated with my city. If the ‘85 Bears’ status as one of the greatest NFL teams ever didn’t solidify that, Saturday Night Live certainly did.
Ditka’s owned that connection. He has been heavily involved with Chicago and Illinois since he was fired by the Bears in 1992, politically and commercially. He owns two eponymous restaurants in the city. He even considered a run for United States Senate in 2004 as a self-styled “ultra-ultra-ultra conservative” before deciding against it. His opponent would have been an obscure state senator named Barack Obama.
(An aside: I think Ditka, well-known as he is, probably could have won that election. Had that happened, there’s no way Obama would have been in position to challenge Hillary Clinton in 2008. So in a way, Ditka is indirectly responsible for the past decade of presidential politics. History’s weird like that.)
The point is that Ditka—who played for the Bears in the turbulent 1960s, coached the team during the tenure of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, and continues to tout his association with Chicago—should be cognizant of the shit that’s been happening there, even if he’s completely and blissfully ignorant of any racial issues afflicting the rest of the country. Instead, he says this:
“I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.”
There are a couple possibilities here. One is that Ditka is telling the truth. If that’s the case, what the fuck has he seen over his 50+ year involvement with football and society? I mean, not that I’d expect him to have seen anything that didn’t jive with Da Coach’s infallible views. This is a man who openly warred with Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator who deserves most of the credit for the ‘85 Bears’ success. (It’s no coincidence that the Bears never reclaimed that pinnacle after Ryan left to coach the Eagles in 1986.) This is a man who, as the New Orleans Saints’ coach in 1999, traded away all his draft picks to get Ricky Williams. That ended just about as well as you’d expect. His poor football-related choices aside, though, Ditka’s interactions on a daily basis with black players, coaches, and media personalities should have rendered him amenable to attempt, at least, to see the world from their perspective. Clearly, that has not happened if Ditka was being sincere in his criticism of Kaepernick.
Another possibility, though, is that Ditka actually sees the atrocities—given his lengthy employment as a national media figure, he would have had to go out of his way to avoid the videos of Laquan McDonald and Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott and Eric Garner and every other instance of a cop killing a non-threatening black man in the past five years—but is choosing to stay on brand with this horrible faux-blindness.
That would be a tremendous abdication of responsibility. Ditka can get through to people like the bar owner I saw performing in Tennessee, can reach them in a way that more liberal members of the media could never do. It wouldn’t even have to be a sweeping statement about institutional racism, about the disproportionately high rates of black imprisonment or black poverty that carry on the legacy of four hundred years of America’s color-based caste system; all it would take would be an acknowledgement that something’s not right. That might be enough to open folks’ eyes for a brief second.
The people to whom Mike Ditka is a god love America. The Chicagoans who love him love Chicago. All people tend to preserve the things they love, to try to fossilize them in amber so that they’ll never change. Ponyboy was supposed to stay gold. But life is change, and when that change rocks the boat of a person’s identity—as an American, as a Chicagoan, as a human being—a common natural response is to react against the perceived boat-rockers. Instead of listening to what they have to say, these conservatives (in the philosophical sense of the word) tell them to “get the hell out.”
They ignore the fact that telling people to leave a country that gained its independence on a tidal wave of protest, that was founded by people who wanted to live out a libertarian dream, that has slowly been forced by that tradition of protest and the unstoppable motion of societal change to expand the scope of that dream to a greater diversity of people, is sheer hypocrisy. Anyone who truly loves America—the idea of America, not its state at a given time that happens to have favored you—should be totally on board with what Colin Kaepernick is doing.
Mike Ditka is not. He doesn’t even think Kaepernick is worthy of his respect. Now that he’s announced this to the world, his legions of fans, Bill Swerski superfans or otherwise, have all the more reason to find Kaepernick below them. They have all the more reason to continue to define American love as backward-looking instead of forward-looking. They will continue to willfully shut their senses off to anything they don’t want to hear, because Ditka has given that narrow-mindedness his mustachioed stamp of approval. And as the rising swell of protest continues to shine a light on the injustices done to Americans of color, Ditka and his acolytes’ views will die all the harder. That’s very bad.
On top of all that, Mike Ditka is inextricably linked with my city. So it comes from a very personal place when I say this:
Coach, shut the f*** up.