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Fans have every right to boo players taking the knee
I am not a football fan, and only occasionally watch the sport on television (maybe once every four years for the World Cup). Hence I don’t particularly care what players or fans do before the match. However, the issue of players “taking the knee”, and of fans booing them, has attracted sufficient attention that I feel compelled to offer my two cents.
The first thing to say is that if one form of protest is allowed, then the other should be too. If players are allowed to take the knee, then fans should be allowed to boo them (and dissenting players should be free to opt out.) Of course, one might take the view that politics has no place in sport, and therefore that players should be discouraged, or even prohibited, from making overt political gestures. Note that this would be a decision for individual clubs, leagues or sports; not something for the government to legislate on.
While I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter, I’m inclined to disagree: sporting bodies should allow players to make overt political gestures – so long as all such gestures are treated equally. Generally speaking, more speech is better than less, and – unless there’s a very good reason – players should not be prevented from expressing their political views on the pitch. But if someone wants to set up a league where all political gestures are banned, then more power to him.
As to the specific matter of footballers taking the knee, I am inclined to agree with the fans. First, aside from the boos, taking the knee is an entirely costless gesture that amounts to little more than virtue-signalling. Given that “racism” has received wall-to-wall media coverage since the death of George Floyd last year (much of which has been highly misleading) it cannot be said that taking the knee is drawing attention to an issue that would have otherwise been ignored. Indeed for many fans, the spectacle has become a “protracted moral lecture”, as Paul Embery notes.
Second, it is not exactly clear what taking the knee means. Is it a protest against police shootings of black men in the United States? Is it a gesture of support for the Black Lives Matter movement? Or is it just a protest against racism in general?
If it is the first, then I would object on the grounds that evidence doesn’t support the narrative that police shootings of black men are caused by racism. (For a comprehensive review of the evidence, see here.) Proponents of this narrative claim that although black people comprise only 13% of the US population, they make up around 30% of those who killed by police. However, this disparity can easily be explained by their higher rates of violent crime, which lead to more deadly encounters with police. Over 90% of those killed by police are men, but nobody claims the police are sexist because we know that men commit more violent crime. What’s more, Asians are killed by police at a lower rate than whites (because they commit less violent crime). But if you accept the reasoning above, then we must conclude that – compared to Asians – the police are racist against whites.
If it is the second, then I would object on the grounds that Black Lives Matter is a radical organisation whose agenda is harmful to both society in general and black people in particular. If it is the third, then I would object on the grounds that practically everyone is against racism (properly defined), and there is no need for us to be constantly reminded. Indeed, people are against all sorts of things (racism, sexism, crime, pollution, lockdowns), but most of us don’t feel the need to engage in regular protests in front of people who have paid for our services.
Third, players who take the knee have been actively encouraged by sporting bodies, despite the fact that those same sporting bodies capitulated as soon as they had to pay a cost for supporting activism.
In December of 2019, the Arsenal player Mesut Özil took to social media to criticize China’s treatment of the Uyghurs – a serious issue that arguably hasn’t received enough attention in the West. 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”. (Two Chinese TV networks refused to broadcast an Arsenal match after Özil’s comments.) The player was subsequently left out of Arsenal’s Europa League and Premier League squads, and in January he moved to the Turkish club Fenerbahçe. As Rory Smith and Tariq Panja, writing in The New York Times, note:
His tweet, and a simultaneous Instagram post to his more than 20 million followers on that service, had caused considerable problems — not just at Arsenal, but also for the Premier League. China, after all, was its largest foreign broadcast partner, and its biggest foreign market, and the league could not afford … to have its games blacked out, to have its sponsors and its fans close their wallets … When the club sent out its merchandising celebrating Chinese New Year, it made sure to remove Özil from any of the materials.
Contrast this with the way Arsenal, and other sporting bodies, dealt with players who took the knee before Arsenal’s recent match against Slavia Prague. The club’s manager, Mikel Arteta, described it as a “good gesture”, and said “the club was very supportive” and “UEFA was very supportive as well”. Similarly, when the Arsenal player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang made a tweet criticising police violence in Africa, the club issued a statement saying, “To our Nigerian fans. We see you. We hear you. We feel you.” (This coming from an organisation that previously said it is “always apolitical”.)
Insofar as Arsenal, and the Premier League, effectively abandoned Mesut Özil when he criticised China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, none of the subsequent “anti-racism” protests can really be taken seriously. Indeed, Arsenal might consider adopting the slogan: “We stand against racism… so long as that doesn’t hurt our market in China.”
Fans have every right to boo players “taking the knee”. The gesture amounts to little more than virtue-signalling, and doesn’t draw attention to anything that hasn’t already been discussed for months. If it is meant to be a protest against police racism in the United States, then it is based on false premise; if it is meant to be a gesture of support for BLM then it is objectionable on account of that organisation’s agenda; and if it is meant to be a protest against racism in general then it is gratuitous. Most importantly, one can hardly take football’s “anti-racist” protests seriously, given that Mesut Özil was pretty-much cancelled for speaking out in support of the Uyghurs.
Image: Picture of the Emirates Stadium with the giant Arsenal Logo, 2010
I’ve written two more short posts since last time. The first summarises a study finding that lockdowns had a large negative impact on economic activity in Chile. The second summarises an article stating that we should welcome the lab leak theory.
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