Taking the knee: why has the gesture caused so much debate?

When the England national team took the knee before their EURO 2020 warm-up games against Austria and Romania in June, the players were booed by a significant number of their own supporters. The reaction surprised many given that the players were kneeling in solidarity for the fight against racial discrimination, so it raises the question as to why fans would boo? Well, some, including politicians, have argued that booing has taken place because taking the knee has been associated with Marxist left-wing political activism. The FA has stated that England players taking the knee is not in support of any political ideology or organisation and reiterated that it is simply a “mechanism of peacefully protesting against discrimination, injustice, and inequality”. Although the reasoning behind it has been explained numerous times, the taking of the knee has still caused a huge divide amongst the footballing community over what is the best way to protest and highlight racial discrimination.

England players taking the knee before their warm-up game against Romania.

Where does taking the knee come from?

For many years, anti-racism activists have associated kneeling with the concept of protest against discrimination and as a means of asserting one’s rights. This idea was adopted by Martin Luther King Jr, arguably the most prominent figure during the US Civil Rights Movement who took the knee while leading prayer during a march in Selma, Alabama (1965).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. kneeling with a group of civil rights workers during a march on Feb. 1, 1965 in Selma, Alabama

In sport, the knee was first adopted by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 took the knee before NFL games to highlight issues of racial inequality and police brutality against black and ethnic minorities. It is also intriguing to note that Kaepernick purposely chose to take a knee while the US national anthem was played in which US Federal Laws (36 U.S. Code § 301) require all to stand and face the flag. However, this did not phase Kaepernick who maintained that he was not going to “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour”. This underlines Kaepernick’s commitment to combat racial inequality and his courage to be the first one in sport to embrace the gesture is highly commendable paving the way for many to follow. Kaepernick’s actions were very reminiscent of the civil rights activism during the 1968 Olympics where African Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos did the Black Power salute on the podium while the US national anthem played.

Two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem at the 1968 Olympics.

Similarly, like Smith and Carlos, Kaepernick received plenty of backlash while causing a lot of anger and distaste amongst patriotic American citizens and army veterans who argued that he was disrespecting the American flag and fallen soldiers who had fought for the country’s freedoms. Whereas, other notable sportsmen such as LeBron James supported Kaepernick’s right to exercise his First Amendment constitutional right to protest against racial and social injustice for African Americans.

Colin Kaepernick (middle) taking a knee before NFL games.

Taking the Knee in English Football

Death of George Floyd

In May 2020, when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin; a fresh wave of civil rights activism was triggered in America encompassed by the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement. The nine-minute-long clip that captured the explicit nature of Floyd’s death instigated a major outrage that led to mass protests all over the US. Consequently, further demonstrations were ignited in several international cities, among those were London, Dublin, and Rome. It is plausible to suggest that the barbaric death of George Floyd was the catalyst for extensive worldwide political discussion on systemic racism and police brutality against black people. Subsequently, global organisations from various industries including sports were compelled to evaluate whether they were doing enough to combat systemic and institutional racism.

As a result, the Premier League allowed its players to have the “Black Lives Matter” motto imprinted on the back of their shirts and take a knee before league games as a gesture to highlight the fight against racial discrimination.

Premier League players kneeling before matches.

Fan Backlash

The first evident signs of backlash in football came during Manchester City’s fixture with Burnley in June 2020. A plane was flown over the Etihad Stadium carrying a banner reading “White Lives Matter Burnley” in what was widely seen as a stunt to undermine the BLM movement. The Burnley fan responsible for the banner, Jake Hepple, claimed that the banner was not flown in an aggressive or racist manner but to just highlight that white lives matter just as much as black lives. However, the banner was widely condemned by Burnley who released a statement intending to hand life bans to those responsible and Burnley captain Ben Mee added that he was “ashamed” and called for those fans responsible to “educate themselves” on the issue.

Burnley fans fly a banner over the Etihad Stadium during their game against Manchester City .

Boos at Millwall

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fans were not allowed to attend games, so it was difficult to know match-going supporters’ feelings towards the knee gesture before games. However, when small sections of fans returned to stadiums in December 2020, we finally witnessed the live opposition to the taking of the knee. Although most stadiums across the country had no issues, there were boos at Colchester and at Cambridge United whose fans made their feelings known as players took to the knee before kick-off. However, the most notable boos came at The Den, home of Millwall Football Club, before their fixture against Derby County.

Millwall, who possess a notorious history of racist elements within their fanbase, have done fantastic work within the diverse community around south-east London to move away from their destructive past. In light of the widespread condemnation of the Millwall fans booing, the official Millwall Supporters’ Club (MSC) released a statement a few days later explaining why some fans booed. In short, the statement read that the fans were not booing because they do not care about black lives and the fight for equality, but rather that they feel the knee gesture is heavily associated with the BLM organisation, who the MSC hold responsible for the defacing of war memorials and Winston Churchill statue during the UK BLM protests after George Floyd’s death. 

The MSC also cited that the booing was in further retaliation to the “extreme” political views that taking the knee has been associated with such as marxism and “defund the police”. To an extent, there is an element of truth in this because the co-founder of BLM, Patrisse Cullors, has been quoted on the record saying that she and other co-founders are “trained Marxists”.

The MSC concluded by firmly stating that Millwall fans are not racist and cited examples where their supporters have previously been very supportive of other anti-racism initiatives such as ‘Kick It Out ‘and ‘Show Racism the Red Card’. In fact, three days after the booing against Derby, Millwall and QPR players were cheered at The Den as they held up an anti-racism banner to show their collective commitment for fighting racism and inequality in football, while those who took the knee were also applauded. However, during the 2021/22 season there has still been booing at The Den from some Millwall fans when opposition players take the knee and Millwall manager Gary Rowett has suggested that football needs “to find a better way to unify people”.

Millwall and QPR players stand united against inequality before their game.

 Government criticism

Football supporters are not on their own when it comes to showing opposition to the knee and it’s a view that has been supported by high-ranking conservative MPs. For example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to condemn those who booed, mentioning that he is “rather focused on actions than gestures” which is ironic given that he was a strong proponent of the ‘clap for the NHS’ gesture. Home Secretary Priti Patel also refused to condemn supporters who booed England players taking the knee claiming they have every right to boo because it is “gesture politics”. Cabinet attendee, Jacob Rees-Mogg added that supporters are booing the BLM UK organisation’s political views and that the attachment of taking a knee is an “American issue” which does not exist in the UK.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel

Further examples include Tory MP Lee Anderson who refused to watch any of England’s EURO 2020 matches citing that the knee supports a “political movement whose core principles aim to undermine our very way of life”. Also, MP Gillian Clark has mentioned that the knee is only creating more divisions and highlighted that some MPs are against it because the BLM organisation stands for the “overthrow of capitalism” and “defunding the police”. However, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was able to separate the political organisation and movement by reiterating that the Government does in fact support the taking of the knee but only when it is linked to reminding the world of the painful realities of racism that footballers such as Marcus Rashford have been subject to. This is the stance that the FA and players have been trying to advocate from the start, that the knee only represents the fight against racial inequality and discrimination.

However, there is a long history of anti-racism movements being labelled as subversive communist campaigns by critics. For example, during the Cold War, it was very common for anti-communist politicians to link the fight for civil rights to communism either through a lack of understanding or through an apparent aim to discredit the cause altogether. Furthermore, the phrase “defund the police” has been taken out of its full context because it is only ever quoted in isolation. The BLM UK website explicitly states that they believe liberation is to “defund the police AND invest in communities” which means to divert funds from police forces and relocate them to non-policing measures geared towards securing public safety; critics of BLM have continued to push the false narrative that the slogan means to abolish the police altogether.

Has taking the knee run its course?

It has been just over a year since football players started taking the knee and although it has highlighted racial problems within the UK, there are questions as to whether it has led to any progressive change regarding systemic and institutional racism. Given the shocking racial abuse we witnessed on social media after England’s EURO 2020 Final defeat on penalties, arguably it shows why players are still taking the knee. However, there is a view that taking the knee has now become a token gesture that has lost its meaning.

For example, when QPR and Coventry City players became the first clubs to not take the knee during a live televised game in September 2020, they received strong criticism. However, QPR Director of Football Les Ferdinand explained that it was not done to undermine the BLM movement but he believed the impact of taking the knee had been diluted using comparisons to how the ‘clap for the NHS’ had run its course and it eventually stopped. He concluded that the real message had been lost and said that only proper action will bring about a change in society. Similarly, others have stopped taking the knee for different reasons. For example, Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League player to stop taking the knee because he finds it degrading and suggests that players remain standing tall while calling on authorities to do more in tackling racism.

However, one could argue that taking the knee elicits further attention and awareness which racism truly deserves especially at a time where online racial abuse has intensified during the pandemic. But until real change is enforced by governing bodies such as FIFA and UEFA, then taking the knee could be seen as a token, divisive gesture, and given the political connotations associated with it, some may say it is doing more harm than good to the cause. But, the power of footballing governing bodies to stop racism may be limited as former Liverpool footballer John Barnes  mentioned that “football can do nothing to change perceptions of black people, it has to be a societal issue. All football can do is highlight the problem.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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