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Taking the knee in football; why this act of protest has always been political


The England football team’s preparations for the 2020 European Championships were recently overshadowed by some of their own supporters’ decision to boo the team for “taking the knee” before matches. This was about players showing support for the fight against racism and campaigning for meaningful change in football, and not about frontline politics, according to manager Gareth Southgate.

In the days that followed, sport media were full of paradoxical explanations for why some fans booed. “Politics should stay out of football” bemoaned right-wing politicians, commentators and some fans, including Lee Anderson, a Tory MP, as well as Nigel Farage and Lawrence Fox.

This group undoubtedly included some of the same fans who annually berate Fifa for not allowing the England team to include the remembrance poppy on uniforms for matches that coincide with Armistice Day, or who routinely sing “Rule Britannia” during matches. Others claimed they booed the gesture because of its claimed association with Marxism and socialism.

No doubt these voices included, too, some fans fresh from recent protests against the formation of the proposed European Super League, and who are currently lobbying English football to adopt a state-run regulatory body that, among other things, would redistribute the game’s wealth more evenly across all 92 clubs. Within this debate, those who booed were right about one thing: taking the knee in sport is entirely political.

A history of taking the knee

Taking the knee is part of long history of athletes using sport as a platform to draw attention to the racial inequalities that communities of colour experience, usually in white majority countries.

Famously, in 1968, African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists when they received their gold and bronze medals at that year’s Olympics Games, to spread awareness of the anti-Black racism that characterised life for Black people in “Jim Crow” America.

More recently in 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and teammates took the knee before matches for the San Francisco 49ers to draw attention to the brutality suffered by Black people in the US at the hands of the country’s law enforcement. This was after he was advised by a White ex-serviceman, Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret, that kneeling was a more respectful gesture than simply remaining in the changing room during the national anthem.

US basketball took a more unified stance to the killings of Black people by US police by postponing three playoff matches in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake.

In each case, responses from the state and large sections of the general public were eerily similar, mirroring the backlash faced by Southgate and his players today. Carlos has since recalled how he and Smith were booed by spectators who cried: “I can’t believe this is how you [N-word] treat us after we let you run in our games.” They were immediately expelled from the Olympic village by the International Olympic Committee, informally blocked from competing in future US squads and even found gaining employment outside of the sport difficult.

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 of their display of defiance.

Kaepernick was released by the 49ers in 2017 and has not been drafted by another NFL franchise since. In a remarkable example of the state and sporting governing bodies operating in tandem to silence and sanction dissenting Black athletes, at a 2017 rally in Kentucky, the then president, Donald Trump, boasted that he had been directly responsible for the blanket decision of NFL owners to not re-sign Kaepernick.

In response to his visceral criticism of Trump’s lack of commitment to racial equality, NBA star and race equality campaigner, Lebron James, was infamously told to stop complaining and “shut up”, by right-wing Fox News host Laura Ingram. She advised that James should instead “stick to dribbling”.

Anti-racism in football

Until now, English football organisations have remained largely on the sidelines in the history of sport and anti-racism activism. This makes its current blanket anti-racism stance even more unusual and promising. Seldom, if ever, has the whole game in England (governing bodies, owners, clubs, managers, administrators, match officials, sponsors, related media, and players) been so unanimously committed to a singular anti-racism cause. To a Black scholar of race and sport such as myself, this certainly feels different.

But some current and ex-footballers, including Wilfred Zaha and Les Ferdinand, point out that since players first started taking the knee back in March 2020, little meaningful progress has been made to change Black lives. For Zaha, it still “doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse”. For Ferdinand, taking the knee is a start but it alone “will not bring about change in the game – (only) actions will”.

Their comments remind us that caution is needed before we lionise the game’s new credentials as a space that is fully committed to racial equity. Football in England has been more comfortable and engaged with addressing 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 culturally based racial inequities that are deeply embedded within the very fabric and culture of the game have been less forthcoming and 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. Likewise, little progress has been made in relation to the longstanding and thorny issue of the disproportionately low number of Black coaches in the professional game (1%) when compared to the number of Black players (30%).

There’s also been near total silence from those within and around the game in relation to the peculiar appointment of Tottenham under-23s manager Ryan Mason to interim first team coach in April. He was hired over club legend and Tottenham first team coach Ledley King and current Tottenham and England first team coach Chris Powell – both of whom are Black. This is not a criticism of Mason. It’s the latest example of many professional football coaching opportunities that have been afforded to young White coaches over their Black peers. In this case, even when both Black coaches possessed significantly more experience, qualifications and standing within the game and club than their White coaching counterpart, Mason was still chosen.

Taking the knee represents a pivotal moment for race relations in English football. For those who long for a fully inclusive national game, we eagerly await to see if those championing the cause make good on their promise for meaningful change. If not, taking a knee in professional football will start and end as little more than a symbolic gesture.

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