Super Bowl-winning coaches’ opposite views on NFL protests highlight broader divide

TJ Macias
·3 min read

Two NFL coaches, both of whom have won that desperately coveted Super Bowl ring, rest on different ends of the political spectrum when it comes to players protesting — and haven’t been quiet about vocalizing their thoughts in contrasting ways.

Mike Ditka, the retired former tight end and head coach whose heyday was in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, expressed his indignation toward players who have protested during the playing of the national anthem.

“I would tell those players go to another country and play football there,” Ditka said in an interview with Newsmax. “You don’t have to come out. You don’t have to come out if you go to another country. You can’t! Because the game (is) only played in this country. And if you can’t respect this country, get the hell out of it.”

On the other end of the debate is Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013 and beat his brother Jim, then the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, in the ring race. Harbaugh, whose team collectively took a knee during the anthem before Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns, sided with the protesting players, NBC Sports reported.

“I don’t know how you can criticize someone for being passionate and for believing in something important to them,” Harbaugh said. “They want America to be great, and to realize the ideals we were founded on.”

John Harbaugh
John Harbaugh

From the NBA to MLB to the NFL, players have been participating in protests in a show of unity, following in former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s metaphorical footsteps.

In 2016, Kaepernick sat down during the anthem to bring attention to systemic racism before a preseason game. It wasn’t until retired Green Beret Nate Boyer suggested to Kaepernick that kneeling during the anthem would be considered as a sign of respect to those who have fallen or been marked by tragedy, Boyer said on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

Eric Reid, a former NFL safety who knelt with Kaepernick in 2016, re-emphasized Boyer’s point in a New York Times op-ed in 2017.

“We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid wrote. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

NFL players weren’t required to be on the field during the national anthem until 2009. A report released by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake “found that the Pentagon spent $6.8 million on sports marketing contracts with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer on what the senators dubbed ‘paid patriotism,’” CBS News reported.

“Since the Army National Guard marketing policy with sporting event packages was clarified and corrected, please understand (that) National Guard soldiers on the field before, during, or after sporting events are completely separate from the marketing initiatives,” Kurt M. Rauschenberg, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, wrote in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. “Generally, these are considered community relations programs involving the team reaching out to the local National Guard asking for them to conduct honor guard, flag unfurling, or fly-overs. Those are of no extra cost to the government and very normal.”