By now you’ve heard about the NFL protests. You’ve heard about Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment; about Mike Pence's taxpayer-funded luxury box stunt; about Mike Ditka, legendary Chicago Bears tight end and coach, hopping on national radio airwaves Monday night to issue the following, shameful sidebar to the most ridiculous argument about posture in American political history:
“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.”
One hundred years. One century. 1917. Not “some” oppression. Not “lessening” oppression. Not “periodic” oppression. “No oppression.” Absolute. Unequivocal. It’s not decontextualized. It’s not “fake news.” The soundbite is right there, as real as the hand you just punched yourself in the face with. It exists now, and no amount of scrubbing can buff it out.
We didn’t come here to poke holes in Ditka’s claim, though. Segregated schools, segregated lunch counters, segregated drinking fountains, fire hoses, attack dogs, lynchings, church burnings, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. do the job well enough on their own, and that’s without the last years 47 years of racially-charged police brutality, birth-certificate witch hunts, White House-endorsed White Supremacist rallies, and a Sunday-in, Sunday-out hurling of filthy ethnic slurs at the walls of every single sports theater in America, Soldier Field absolutely, definitely included.
Ditka is factually wrong, of course. There’s just no use debating it because debate for this kind of idiocy is not even on the table. What is worth discussion, however, is the fact this statement, and other recent proclamations from hard-nosed assembly-line alphas raised in fear of thy flag and thy father’s fist, feels (in addition to gross and sad and catastrophically undereducated) absolutely inevitable. This was coming. If not from Ditka, then from someone like Ditka. A man’s man. A white man. A tough man. A Football Coach™, as your grandfather remembers them, anyway.
And that’s not fair. Not to the millions of Americans who have suffered some form of racial oppression since 1917. Not to American sports, long the crucible of racial progress in America. Not to—and yes, we can’t believe we’re defending them either—football coaches. But when a washed-up blocking tight-end like Ditka opens his mouth and issues an absolutist statement about a sensitive racial issue while simultaneously admitting that he doesn’t know what the f—k he’s talking about (“Now maybe I’m not watching it as closely as others,” was his disclaimer), he paints the expected picture for digital sports journalists across the Internet: Aging out-of-touch sports veteran is a social luddite.
You don’t have to look far, however, to see that what we mistake for the rule, is actually just the loudest exception. About 208 miles, actually. Due north. In a small Wisconsin town that owes its entire existence to one man.
That town? Green Bay (not exactly a of bastion of diversity, it should be noted). The man? Vince Lombardi.
Born in Sheepshead Bay to two Italian immigrants in 1913, Lombardi grew up staunchly Catholic—beginning his coaching career St. Cecilia’s High School—and decidedly authoritarian, his first major sideline position coming at West Point in 1949. Born in Sheepshead Bay to two Italian immigrants in 1913, Lombardi also grew up knowing the sting of a racial epitaph and the feeling that America was for someone else. As Slate points out, Lombardi—an incongruous blend of social liberality and law-and-order conservatism—may not have supported protesting DURING the national anthem, but let’s not forget: In 1959, when Lombardi took over a floundering Packers franchise, America was 14 years removed from WWII, football was hardly televised, and the NFL was not being paid millions of dollars by the armed services to broadcast the anthem during pre-game ceremonies as a subliminal backdoor recruiting strategy. The comparison doesn’t really fit nor does it really matter.
What really matters is that despite his fire-and-brimstone ethos—and general disdain for 1960s counter culture (read: pre-Internet millennials)—noted hard-ass Caucasian football coach Vince Lombardi, aged 54 at the time of his last championship win at the helm of the Packers, recognized racial inequality in America and did everything he could to eradicate it within his locker room and the NFL as whole.
Open your damn earholes, Ditka.
“If I ever hear nigger or dago or kike or anything like that around here, regardless of who you are, you’re through with me. You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice,” Lombardi said to his players when he took the job. He told local bartenders, restaurant owners, and landlords the same thing. When his team traveled through Jim Crow country in 1960—43 years after that last alleged instance of racial oppression in America, according to the Ditka Britannica—his white and black players were forced to sleep at separate hotels. Lombardi was apoplectic and apologetic. It would never happen again he said, and, as far as anyone knows, it never did. By 1967, there were 13 black players on the Packers roster. Five years earlier, a notoriously racist Washington Redskins front office had just signed their first.
Lombardi stared America’s yawning racial divide in the mouth because Lombardi didn’t believe in shortcuts. Nor did Leo Durocher or Red Auerbach. Ditka didn't because it’s convenient not to or because time has dulled the memories or because some misappropriated bootstrap mentality is doing the talking. In the process he, and fellow reanimated bobbleheads like Lou Holtz and Donald Sterling, continue to skew modern society’s perception of history, humanity, and sports every time they unhinge their jaws, the crust of their own devoured egos congealing at the corners. Just because you’re old, white, believe water is for pussies, and coached a glorified gladiator sport, doesn’t mean you have to be an idiot. Just because you have empathy, doesn’t mean you can’t be a tough motherf—ker.
Just ask the man whose name is on THE FREAKING FOOTBALL TROPHY. Something tells us he’d do a hell of a lot more than tell you.