The England national football team’s preparations for Euro 2020 were recently overshadowed by the decision of some of their own supporters to boo the team for “kneeling” before matches. It was about players showing support for the fight against racism and campaigning for meaningful change in football, and not about front-line politics, according to manager Gareth Southgate.
In the days that followed, the sports media was full of paradoxical explanations for why some fans booed. “Politics should stay out of football,” lamented right-wing politicians, commentators and some fans, including Lee Anderson, a Conservative MP, as well as Nigel Farage and Lawrence Fox.
Reading: Taking a knee in football
This group undoubtedly included some of the same fans who annually berate FIFA for not allowing the England team to include the commemorative poppy on uniforms for matches coinciding with Armistice Day, or who routinely sing “British rule” during matches. others claimed they booed the gesture because of its alleged association with Marxism and socialism.
These voices no doubt included, too, some fans fresh from the recent protests against the formation of the proposed European Super League, and who are currently pushing English football to adopt a state regulatory body that, among other things, it would redistribute the game’s wealth more evenly across the 92 clubs. Within this debate, the booers were right about one thing: kneeling in sport is totally political.
a story of taking the knee
taking a knee is part of a long history of athletes using sport as a platform to draw attention to the racial inequalities experienced by communities of color, often in majority white countries.
in 1968, african-american sprinters tommie smith and john carlos raised their gloved fists as they received their gold and bronze medals at that year’s olympics, to raise awareness of the anti-black racism that characterized black life in “jim crow” america.
most recently in 2016, nfl quarterback colin kaepernick and his teammates took a knee before san francisco 49ers games to draw attention to the brutality suffered by black people in states united at the hands of the country’s law enforcement agencies. This was after a white ex-military man, Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret, advised him that kneeling was a more respectful gesture than simply remaining in the locker room during the national anthem.
US basketball took a more unified stance on the killings of black people by US police by postponing three playoff games in response to the shooting of jacob blake.
In each case, the responses from the state and from large sections of the general public were eerily similar, reflecting the backlash facing southgate and its players today. Carlos has since recalled how he and Smith were booed by spectators who yelled, “I can’t believe [n-word] would treat us like this after we let you run in our games.” the international olympic committee immediately expelled them from the olympic village, prevented them from competing in future american squads, and even made it difficult for them to get jobs outside of the sport.
peter norman, the white australian sprinter who finished second and stood on the podium alongside smith and carlos was never selected for australia again. this was punishment for his association and support for his display of defiance.
Kaepernick was released by the 49ers in 2017 and has not been drafted by another NFL franchise since. In a notable example of state and sports governing bodies operating in tandem to silence and sanction dissenting black athletes, at a 2017 rally in kentucky then-president donald trump bragged that he was directly responsible for the Overall decision by NFL owners not to re-sign Kaepernick.
In response to his visceral criticism of trump’s lack of commitment to racial equality, nba star and racial equality activist lebron james received fox news anchor laura ingram’s infamous quote from Stop complaining and shut up. She advised that James should instead “stick to the dribble”.
anti-racism in football
Until now, English football organizations have largely remained on the sidelines in the history of sport and anti-racism activism. this makes his current general anti-racism stance even more unusual and promising. Rarely, if ever, has the entire game in England – governing bodies, owners, clubs, managers, administrators, referees, sponsors, related media and players – been so unanimously committed to a singular anti-racism cause. for a black student of race and sport like me, this certainly feels different.
But some ex-soccer players and ex-footballers, including Wilfred Zaha and Les Ferdinand, point out that since players began taking a knee in March 2020, little meaningful progress has been made in changing black lives. For Zaha, it still “doesn’t matter if we kneel or stand up, some of us are still being abused.” For Ferdinand, kneeling is a start, but by itself “it won’t change the game; (only) actions will.”
Your comments remind us that caution is needed before praising the game’s new credentials as a space fully committed to racial equity. football in england has become more comfortable with and committed to tackling overt forms of racism, such as racial chanting in stadiums and racial abuse directed at players on social media. Attempts to address the structural, systemic, and cultural racial inequalities that are deeply embedded in the fabric and culture of the game have been less forthcoming and less effective.
For example, little has been done to address the nuanced barriers faced by British-born South Asian talent and the near-total exclusion of British-born East Asian football hopefuls from the professional game. similarly, little progress has been made on the long-standing and thorny problem of the disproportionately low number of black coaches in professional soccer (1%) compared to the number of black players (30%).
There has also been almost total silence from those in and around the game regarding Tottenham’s under-23 manager Ryan Mason’s peculiar appointment as caretaker first-team manager in April. He was hired by club legend and Tottenham first-team manager Ledley King and current Tottenham and England first-team manager Chris Powell, both of whom are black. this is not a criticism of mason. it is the latest example of many professional soccer coaching opportunities that have been afforded young white coaches over their black peers. In this case, even though both black coaches possessed significantly more experience, qualifications, and position within the game and the club than their white coaching counterparts, Mason was chosen.
The knee represents a pivotal moment for race relations in English football. For those yearning for a fully inclusive national game, we look forward to seeing if the advocates deliver on their promise of meaningful change. if not, kneeling in professional football will begin and end as little more than a symbolic gesture.