One of the main talking points of the belated 2020 UEFA European Football Championship was the involvement of footballers in coordinated anti-racist protests by taking the knee before the beginning of each match. Notably, the English football team’s decision to protest racism was met with disapproval by a fraction of their own supporters, who decided to boo their own national team throughout an international competition. This paradoxical visible discontent with and lack of support for the actions of one’s national team has sparked an ongoing debate on whether footballers ought to get involved in such coordinated action in order to express support for a social cause, or whether they should remain impartial and refocus their attention solely on ‘the beautiful game’.
Those defending the players’ commitment to taking the knee point to the fact that football has a problem with racism, and that players, coaches, teams, sponsors, and organisations have a right, and most importantly a responsibility, to stand against racism. The need to act against racism in football is most recently exemplified by the abhorrent racist abuse directed at England’s Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka following their missed penalties that led to Italy’s crowning as champions.
In the other camp, the booers—who one could reasonably suspect to significantly overlap with the abusers—justify their outcry by referring to the connection between the act itself and the Black Lives Matter movement. Such critics consider that footballers’ taking of the knee does not represent mere harmless commitment to anti-racism in sport and in wider society, but an allegiance to a dissident anti-capitalist movement that aims at radically reconstructing social and economic structures, posing a threat to human society as we know it. If only they were right!
Accusations of treason and support for Marxism and the defunding of the police have been branded as preposterous and nonsensical. Surely, despite Marcus Rashford’s exemplary record of charitable donations and political involvement, most high-level footballers remain emotionally attached to their wealth, sports cars, and fame, while enjoying political neutrality. Taking the knee, so the defence goes, albeit having originated within a movement whose manifesto aims radically to the left, can serve as an avenue of expression for anyone who wants to visibly protest racism. A person taking the knee does not automatically align themselves to a call for redistribution of power and wealth, but they simply engage in a moderate show of opposition to racism and solidarity with the victims of abuse and discrimination.
Is the purpose of knee-taking radical anti-racism, or is it an empty political gesture?
What the defenders of moderate knee-taking fail to understand is that taking the knee is a meaningful gesture precisely due to its connection to a movement that demands radical social, political, and economic change for Black people. If our support for footballers engaging in such action involves whitewashing its radical origin and transforming it into a moderate gesture that is appropriate and inoffensive, then we merely justify taking the knee because, in practice, it does not attempt to change anything considerably. In doing so, by deradicalising it and decoupling it from its BLM roots, the arguably well-intended supporters of moderate knee-taking proceed to use, abuse, and defuse a symbol of resistance to structures of oppression that necessarily require radical restructuring. Faced with such a diluted avenue for protest, one might as well stay standing.
With knee-taking before kick-off continuing in the newly started Premier League season, debates on the subject are likely to stay heated. In order to ensure that players’ activism aims higher than empty gesture politics, we have to cease stripping knee-taking of any meaningful connection to ongoing calls for justice and equality for Black people.
Edited by Glory Dahunsi