On players ‘taking the knee’
Imagine a scenario where players are being booed for making gestures that contain a political statement, but when play resumes and the players clinch stunning successes, spectators in the same gallery go wild in celebrations. This is what we have been witnessing in the United Kingdom for quite some time, as footballers (taking the cue from sportspeople in the United States) started "taking a knee" since last year to highlight racial injustices and show support to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Frustrated in seeing such contradictory behaviour from spectators, a prominent British jurist, former Chief Prosecutor Nazir Afzal, tweeted on June 13, the day England won against Croatia in Euro 2020, "Some booing the knee & then cheering Raheem Sterling for scoring the winner just after he got his Honour for his work on racism, is some level of hypocrisy."
The issue of fighting racial injustice has drawn widespread support globally, but it has also given right-wing populists the chance to stoke further division and spread hate, particularly targeting immigrants. And, immigrant talents have been a dominant force in the Western sporting arena for quite some time. As a result, the players themselves are being frequently subjected to racist abuses. It is quite rampant and savage, especially on social media platforms. A three-day social media boycott between April 30 and May 3 by footballers (supported by The Football Association, Premier League and some politicians) to highlight social media companies' inaction on eradicating online hate and racism seemed to change very little.
Despite The Football Association (The FA) and UEFA weighing in to support the footballers in their actions against racism, particularly on taking knees at football matches, a section of English spectators continued booing their team. Such supporters, who have been booing their players for displaying anti-racist gestures, argue that by taking a position on divisive issues of social justice, the players are bringing politics into sports.
Players taking the knee at Euro 2020 (being played in 2021 due to the pandemic), the most important European tournament, has in a way already exposed the divisions within Europe. Only a handful of teams (out of 24) have been taking the knee as a show of support to racial justice while the rest have not. Teams that are refraining from such gestures have expressed differing views in justifying their positions. All those teams have said that they strongly condemn any and all forms of discrimination. However, some national associations, like that of the Czech Republic, without referring to the BLM movement, have said that they would take a neutral "apolitical stance" on certain topics that have been resonating in the sports environment. It was evidently clear that to the Czechs, supporting BLM was political. Czechs, however, claim that their jerseys have the UEFA Respect inscription, which refers to the UEFA's campaign against racism. The Croatian Football Federation said that the players have a right to their own opinions on these topics and that they also have a right to choose whether they want to engage in any form of activism. The Croatian players have jointly decided not to take the knee. However, it must be noted here that in recent years, several European matches in Croatia had to be held without any spectators due to repeated incidents of "monkey" chants towards non-white players.
Teams that are taking the knee include all three nations of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland and Wales, along with France, Belgium and Austria. But in England, too, the issue has become very divisive, with some tacit support from some politicians belonging to the party in power. Hence, booing continued during the latest match on Friday evening between England and Scotland, despite appeals from The FA not to do so. However, the boos circulating around the stadium were eventually drowned out by applause from other supporters.
Recent intervention by the Culture Secretary in the controversy surrounding the English Cricket Board's suspension of cricketer Ollie Robinson over historic racist and sexist tweets also fuelled controversies against the Conservative Party on the issue of racism. The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, criticised the suspension of Ollie Robinson, terming the action as being "over the top". Another Conservative politician, Brendan Clarke-Smith MP, compared taking the knee to making a Nazi salute in the 1930s. Amidst these controversies, when asked by the media, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's office refused to comment on whether he condemns booing of the national team's players. In response, Labour MP Dan Butler, in a scathing article in the Metro newspaper, criticised the prime minister for not condemning the booing spectators.
In recent years, English footballers, particularly from ethnic minority groups, have increasingly been speaking up about issues of socioeconomic injustices, causing discomfort and embarrassment to the leaders of the ruling party. A most notable example is the successful campaign for providing school meals at homes during lockdowns for poorer families, spearheaded by Manchester United's rising star Marcus Rashford. His open letter to the Prime Minister and social media campaign calling for businesses to contribute in feeding children forced the government to change its policy. Afterwards, some commentators termed him as the most high profile opponent of Boris Johnson's government in the past year, instead of the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Readers in Bangladesh can perhaps remember Hamza Chowdhury's celebration of Leicester City's FA cup win with the waving of a Palestinian flag. He was joined by Wesley Fofana too. It was in solidarity with the Palestinians amidst an Israeli military campaign in Gaza that killed more than 200 innocent civilians, including at least 63 children. There is no doubt that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the 73 years long conflict remains the most sensitive issue in international politics and diplomacy. Many people feared that penalties or disciplinary actions would be taken against them. But the players' club firmly stood behind them. Hamza and Wesley's actions angered Jewish groups, who argued that football is no place for political statements and gestures of this nature can incite and inflame racial hatred, abuse and violence. However, the FA has so far refrained from taking any actions against the two players.
On the day the Hamza and Wesley duo carried the Palestinian flag at Wembley, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in London and other cities in the UK in solidarity with Palestinians. It is now becoming clear that keeping issues of social injustices and human rights out of sporting arenas may no longer be sustainable.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist.
His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1