Mike Ditka will say anything at any time. Bidden, unbidden – it doesn’t matter. Whatever is on his mind will soon be on its way to you. It’s his appeal. It’s his moneymaker.
On Tuesday, the topic was the five St. Louis Rams players who, before a game Sunday, raised their arms in a “hands up, don’t shoot’’ pose to protest the decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
The former Bears coach and current ESPN football analyst said Brown never raised his hands in surrender to Wilson and that “a policeman’s life is ruined.’’
After picking my jaw off the floor, I thought, “I can’t believe that someone with such a high public profile would say what he said in such an in-your-face manner,’’ followed by, “This could be his undoing.’’
Followed by, “Wait, why can’t he say what he did?’’
We all have opinions. Some we say out loud. Some we don’t, for propriety’s sake. But propriety isn’t always enough of a reason not to say something. Call the 75-year-old doddering if it makes you feel good, but lots of Americans his junior agree with him. If there is going to be a solution to the racial problems in this country, people have to be heard, no matter how much you might disagree with them.
But there has to be a better way than plowing over the other side like a tight end might.
Ditka does a weekly column for the Sun-Times called “4 Downs with Mike Ditka.’’ An editor calls him with four questions, and Ditka opines. Most of the time, the questions have to do with football, but because it’s impossible to separate sports from everyday life, the real world sometimes elbows its way into the discussion.
That was the case Tuesday, when an editor asked Ditka about the Rams players who had raised their hands in protest as they took the field Sunday against Oakland. Ditka instead went off on the situation in Ferguson.
“I’m not sure they care about Michael Brown or anything else,’’ he said. “This was a reason to protest and to go out and loot. Is this the way to celebrate the memory of Michael Brown? Is this an excuse to be lawless? Somebody has to tell me that. I don’t understand it. I understand what the Rams’ take on this was. I’m embarrassed for the players more than anything. They want to take a political stand on this? Well, there are a lot of other things that have happened in our society that people have not stood up and disagreed about.
“… What do you do if someone pulls a gun on you or is robbing a store and you stop them? I don’t want to hear about this hands-up crap. That’s not what happened. I don’t know exactly what did happen, but I know that’s not what happened. This policeman’s life is ruined. Why? Because we have to break somebody down. Because we have to even out the game. I don’t know. I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.”
The national response was loud on both sides. Some of those who disagree with him have jumped on his age to explain what they take to be his kookiness. He’s at an age when many people don’t care what they say or who hears it. There’s a freedom that comes with getting older. There are also pitfalls, and if Da Coach’s career as a media star and serial product endorser some day is done in by his tongue, no one will be surprised.
But some of Ditka’s comments aren’t so different from those of NBA TV commentator Charles Barkley, who called Ferguson looters “scumbags.’’ Barkley is 51 and black.
“The cops are awesome,” he told CNN. “They’re the only thing in the ghetto between this place being the wild wild West.’’
This is where it gets difficult. The Ferguson situation is a tinderbox right now, and words have the potential to start a fire. Brown’s stepfather screamed, “Burn this b—- down,’’ upon hearing the news that a grand jury had chosen not to indict Wilson. No one can be sure if his words were the accelerant, but burn Ferguson did.
Timing and tact matter. When all one side can think about is the loss of a teenager’s life, it’s probably not the best time to bemoan the fate of the man who killed him. Especially in print and especially if you’re Mike Ditka. It simply doesn’t help, you know?
I happen to believe in the physical evidence that showed Brown was the aggressor in his encounter with Wilson. I also understand that the black community’s distrust of police goes back decades. Those of us who haven’t experienced that firsthand have to be sensitive to those feelings. It’s why I wouldn’t think of blurting out what Ditka did, especially if I worked with African-Americans Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown,’’ as he does.
There’s something to be said for sensitivity and respect. And choosing words very, very carefully.