Former NFL tight end and head coach Mike Ditka said Monday "there has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of" and said current football players should "respect the game" by saving protests for after the game rather than during the national anthem.
Ditka made the comments before the Monday Night Football contest between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears during an interview with Jim Gray of Westwood One (via Des Bieler of the Washington Post).
"Is this the stage for this?" he 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."
Former Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith responded to Ditka's comments, criticizing the former head coach:
Chris Mortensen of ESPN noted Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said this week any players on his team who "disrespect" the national anthem and the American flag won't be allowed to play in the game.
Ditka told Gray he would put the same policy in place if he were still coaching in the NFL.
"Yes. 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," he said. "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."
The 77-year-old Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee's stance falls in line with U.S. President Donald Trump, who suggested NFL owners should fire players who don't stand for the anthem. Ditka was a supporter of Trump during the last election.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said. "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."
Other athletes, both from the NFL and others across the sports spectrum, have followed his lead as their way of making a statement about social injustice. Meanwhile, Kaepernick hasn't been able to find a new team since opting out of his contract with the Niners in March.