England’s path to the final of Euro 2020 was beset from the beginning by the controversy over players “taking the knee”. While many fans apparently support the gesture, a sizeable minority object, and have expressed their dissatisfaction by booing. So far as I understand, the main reason these fans object is that they believe taking the knee is political, and want politics to be kept out of sport. They “just want to enjoy the game”, in other words.
However, the England manager Gareth Southgate has said “that’s not the reason players are doing it.” Rather, he claims, “We are supporting each other.” When the Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned social media abuse of England players, having previously dismissed taking the knee as “gesture politics”, one player said: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament” and then “pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against” happens. He also referred to taking the knee as “our anti-racism message”.
For footballers then, taking the knee is a non-political but “anti-racist” gesture aimed at supporting their teammates. I’m afraid I’m not convinced.
As I’ve noted previously, Mesut Özil was abandoned by Arsenal after he posted a tweet criticising China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Rather than standing by their man, the club issued a statement saying “these are Mesut's personal views” and “Arsenal is always apolitical as an organisation”. Özil was subsequently left out of Arsenal’s Europa League and Premier League squads. And when the club sent out its merchandising for Chinese New Year, it removed Özil’s name from any of the materials. (In case it wasn’t obvious, Arsenal didn’t want to hurt its market in China.)
Özil is a footballer, and he took a stand against racism. Did any of the England players speak out when he was abandoned by his club? I’ve asked twice on social media, but no one’s come forward with an example. The England players want us to take their “anti-racism message” seriously – to the point of denouncing the Home Secretary – but they weren’t willing to defend another footballer who took a stand against racism.
Now, I don’t blame them for not expressing their solidarity with Özil. If I were earning £60,000 a week, I wouldn’t put it all on the line to protest China’s treatment of the Uyghurs either. But that’s the point. Being a moral exemplar is hard. It requires you to make tough choices, as Mesut Özil did. Simply taking the knee for a few seconds before a football match arguably is gesture politics.
You might say this is unfair to the England players. We can’t expect them to fight every battle, and they should at least be praised for standing up against racism in football. But I don’t buy this argument. In the first place, Gareth Southgate has claimed taking the knee is about “supporting each other”. So where was the support for Mesut Özil? After all, being abandoned by your club is a bit more serious than getting nasty messages on social media. As Andrew Anthony put it, “Özil had spoken out on what is unquestionably the largest, most systematic and flagrant case of religious persecution in the world, and the reaction of his sport was to push him away, as though he were a reckless troublemaker.”
Second, if you give the impression that you’re only willing to protest racism when it doesn’t cost you anything, you end up undermining your own cause. People then infer, “I guess racism isn’t such a big deal, since players only bother opposing it when doing so is easy”. If footballers are going to continue taking the knee, while remaining silent about Mesut Özil, they could at least clarify that they aren’t protesting racism in general, but only one specific type of racism. And we could avoid all the sanctimony.
Again, I’m not criticising players for failing to speak out against every injustice in which their sport is implicated. (The human rights situation in Qatar is another big one.) I don’t expect them to speak out against these things. They were hired to play football, not to serve as ambassadors for Amnesty International. But I would ask that they have a little more patience with fans, many of whom just want to watch their favourite sport without having to sit though an “anti-racism” lecture.
Image: World Cup Semifinal between England and Croatia, 2018
I’ve written four more short posts since last time. The first summarises a study finding that reductions in quality of life have vastly outweighed COVID-19 deaths. The second notes that the Editor-in-Chief of The BMJ has said the lab leak is “plausible and worthy of serious inquiry”. The third notes that there have been 9,484 fewer deaths than normal since the 8th of March. The fourth asks whether lockdown was a factor in the South African riots.
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It is an effective strategy to paint your sides' political actions as just decency or something as benign as being against bigotry.