Players and people within organisations have their hearts in the right place, but that isn’t enough – they must do more to tackle discrimination
Footballers in England have been taking the knee before the start of the match for seven consecutive months now.
An act influenced by Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police brutality in 2016, kneeling was adopted by footballers to show solidarity against anti-Black violence following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by a white policeman.
Kaepernick himself took inspiration from the Civil Rights movement in the United States, where figures such as Martin Luther King Jr kneeled after a group of protesters were arrested during a march to the Dallas County Alabama courthouse.
Floyd’s murder sparked worldwide protests against systemic oppression of Black people. So naturally, the movement reached English football, where racism has been rife for decades.
Seeing each player kneel in silence is an emotional image. It is good that they are calling attention to racism, in an industry that has been accused of sweeping issues of discrimination under the rug.
But if further action isn’t done, the symbolic gesture of taking the knee will be lost – with kneeling in danger of being reduced to a performative action.
In the same way that the Premier League tout their “No Room for Racism” slogan, taking the knee feels more of a PR gimmick than a call to actually incite change.
QPR director of football Les Ferdinand felt that the gesture lost its meaning over the months, comparing it to a hashtag – calling for more meaningful action.
“The taking of the knee has reached a point of ‘good PR’ but little more than that. The message has been lost. It is now not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge,” said Ferdinand via the club’s official website.
QPR no longer take the knee prior to kick-off.
Ferdinand added: “Will people be happy for players to take the knee for the next 10 years but see no actual progress made?
“Taking the knee will not bring about change in the game – actions will.”
That’s not to say that both courses of action can’t be done at the same time. Both can, and should. Footballers can kneel and continue their activism off-pitch.
Once fans return and racist abuse happens, players should absolutely see this as an opportunity to take a knee, refuse to play any further, walk off the pitch in protest and potentially forfeit the matchh.
Premier League footballers have lots of money. In addition to taking the knee, they can donate to charities in support for racial justice. They can enrol in education courses to better inform themselves.
They can throw their solidarity behind Black Lives Matter. They can publicly defend their Black team-mates when they are abused. They can condemn racism outright on their social media channels.
The fear is that once this season is over, and the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder comes around, some players might decide to retire taking the knee and that’ll be it for racial solidarity and support in football.
Players might feel that they’ve already done their part in tackling racism for having taken the knee for a majority of the season – a green tick on the checklist. Done and dusted.
Kaepernick’s kneeling resonated across the country because he did so instead of singing the U.S. national anthem – a customary, patriotic tradition within American sporting culture. His refusal to sing was an overt, non-aggressive show of protest against police brutality.
For Kaepernick to dare kneel and refuse to sing the anthem, he committed career suicide in the pursuit of social justice.
Peaceful protests are especially important in an era where a U.S. president can whip his followers into a violent frenzy on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Before the game, there were concerns that Millwall supporters would take issue with the gesture, due to its so-called leftist politicisation and the fact they have long had a reputation for hooliganism. All the more reason to kneel, then. The club stated they remained “fully supportive of the efforts to rid sport, and society, of all forms of discrimination”.
They booed anyway. For a majority white fanbase to jeer a show of solidarity against anti-racism was abhorrent, but not all surprising. But ultimately, it is the club who have failed the Black community with their failure to hold those who booed accountable. Here, they have become complicit.
The Millwall fans who booed the team are registered supporters and have personal details on file. The club, then, should have taken measures to not only identify them and punish them, but to also put them through individual educational anti-racism courses. The FA has no trouble banning and fining fans who are accused of racism, but that is only the first step towards justice – the next is enlightenment and education.
QPR, though, were able to take matters into their hands not long after. Just days after Millwall fans booed their own team for kneeling, in a moment of true comeuppance, QPR’s Ilias Chair scored against Millwall.
How did QPR celebrate? By taking the knee and raising their fists in front of the very fans who had booed the gesture. It was the perfect celebration – staring hate in the eye and challenging it.
Kaepernick never kneeled when the stakes were low. He chose a moment that would have the heaviest ramifications, causing a ripple effect throughout sport and society and putting himself as secondary in the fight for justice.
It’s time Premier League footballers do the same.