NFL commissioner Roger Goodell now says the league was wrong for not listening to Black players earlier. Credit: Teddy wade / u.S. Defense department

If you want to understand another way in which George Floyd’s murder has upended our world, consider that the loudest, boldest voice in Chicago sports once belonged to Mike Ditka, former coach of the Bears.

At least when it came to speaking his mind about politics.

A lot of younger readers may not know much about Ditka, who has stepped back from the limelight in recent years. He was, among other things, a great football player, a mediocre coach, and a raging right-wing windbag.

Ditka turned his everyman image into a brand, making millions pitching everything from Campbell’s Chunky Soup to Levitra, an erectile dysfunction drug.

Over the years, I watched in amazement—not knowing whether to laugh or cry—as Ditka maintained his commercial endorsements, radio show, and TV talking head gigs, all while freely mouthing whatever boneheaded notion popped into his brain. Like . . . 

“There has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of.”

And . . . 

“If you don’t like the way that our democracy was set up, haul your ass out of the country.”

And . . .

“Obama is the worst president we’ve ever had.”

In 2016, he endorsed Trump—naturally.

For my money, Ditka’s daffiest comment came in 1992, when he declared that electing Bill Clinton would be “the biggest step backward this country would take in 200 years of existence.”

Look, I’ve had my problems with Bill Clinton. But biggest step backward in the history of the USA? Ahead of slavery? The Civil War? The founding of the KKK? The Great Depression? Pearl Harbor? The assassination of Dr. King? The Vietnam War? You get the idea—feel free to make your own list.

Now, imagine if you were a Black player on the Bears when Ditka made that comment. You may not have liked it. But, most likely, you kept your mouth shut. ’Cause back then if a Black football player were to challenge Mike Ditka, he’d probably be labelled a troublemaker and ushered out of the game.

Like Craig Hodges was ushered out of basketball for daring to raise the concerns of Black America to the first President Bush—another story for another time.

In short, the NFL faces a challenge. At least 70 percent of its players are Black. But many football fans are of the MAGA-hat persuasion.

So how do you employ the best Black players without losing the most bigoted of white fans? To help in this effort, ESPN brought in Hank Williams Jr. to sing the opening song for Monday Night Football.

Williams may even be to the right of Ditka. His most infamous moment came during a 2011 appearance on Fox News when he likened President Obama to Hitler.

You know, there’s just something about Obama that brings out the worst in MAGA hatters—wonder what that could be.

Anyway, Williams and Fox host Gretchen Carlson had the following exchange . . .

Carlson: You used the name of one of the most hated people in all the world to describe, I think, the president.

Williams: That’s true. But I’m telling you like it is.

Concerned about the fallout, ESPN removed Williams and his song from Monday Night Football. Defiantly unapologetic, Williams responded by writing “Keep the Change,” in which he sang: “This country’s sure as hell been goin’ down the drain.”

’Cause what kind of country is it when you can’t compare a moderate Democrat to a mass murderer!

Wait, the Williams / ESPN saga is not over.

In 2017, as Trump fired up his MAGA nation against Colin Kaepernick, ESPN returned Williams and his song to the opening of Monday Night Football.

So, follow me on this . . .

Kaepernick gets banished from football—couldn’t even get a tryout—for peacefully protesting against police brutality.

Meanwhile, it’s Welcome Back, Kotter to Hank “Obama is Hitler” Williams—no apologies required.

In my opinion, that was ESPN’s way of assuring MAGA—as Trump refers to his followers—that they have nothing to fear as those knee-taking Black troublemakers have been removed and Hank Williams Jr. has been returned.

Well, I’m happy to report that “the troublemakers” are back!

In the last few days, some of the game’s biggest Black stars—including quarterback Patrick Mahomes—made a video in which they declared they “will not be silenced.” They demanded that the NFL condemn “racism and the systemic oppression of Black people” and admit that it “was wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting.”

Almost immediately, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded with a video in which he said “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

Other white players and coaches are making a similar pledge.

After saying that “it was offensive to kneel during the national anthem,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees profusely apologized.

After saying the NFL’s a “meritocracy—you earn what you get” and “I don’t see racism at all in the NFL,” Denver coach Vic Fangio also apologized and joined a Black Lives Matter march.

So far, no reports of Ditka joining a march. And we’ll have to see if ESPN continues to have Williams open its show.

Having mentioned Mahomes—the greatest young quarterback in the game—I must point out that the Bears, who desperately need a quarterback, could have taken him in the 2017 draft. Instead, they decided it was a good idea to draft Mitch Trubisky, an exceedingly mediocre QB.

The Bears also passed on Deshaun Watson, another Black quarterback who, like Mahomes, is now one of the bright stars in the game.

The Bears general manager who took Trubisky over Mahomes and Watson is Ryan Pace. He still has his job—in case there’s anyone out there who really believes the NFL is a meritocracy.

That’s the same Ryan Pace who signed exceedingly bad white quarterback Mike Glennon over Kaepernick as a free agent in 2017, as I’ve discussed before.

You know, I’m starting to think Pace and the Bears would sign me before selecting a Black man to play quarterback.

Hope I’m not offending anyone—just telling you like it is.  v