Few expected England fans to boo their own team at the start of this year’s European football championship, but that’s precisely what happened when the entire team took a knee in a gesture against racism and discrimination.
As the team has progressed to the second round of the tournament, the cheers have largely drowned out the boos. But the apparent reluctance of some senior government politicians to support the team’s gesture — or to call out those doing the booing — has recharged the debate over racism in English sport and society.
“I’ve been going to football games for almost 50 years as a Black fan,” said Chris Grant, an independent board member of Sport England, a Royal Charter organization devoted to ensuring access to sport for all.
“When I first went, it was a hairy experience,” Grant said. “It was challenging in lots of ways and things would be said and sung and thrown and all sorts of stuff. We’ve had, during my life, a steady process of that getting better.”
But not anymore, he says.
“If I’m really honest, there hasn’t been a moment in the last 20, 30 years where I’ve been as concerned [as right now] that things could get much worse before they get better.”
Reported racial abuse in professional soccer increased by 53 per cent between this season and last, according to figures from Kick It Out, English football’s equality and inclusion organization. Reports of discrimination increased by 42 per cent.
Derided as ‘gesture politics’
Players from the Premier League and Championship league began taking a knee last June, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that were taking place around the world.
The England team made a decision to keep doing it during the Euros, which began in mid-June. They were booed by some of their own supporters at warm-up matches, prompting a swift response from the English Football Association (FA).
“There can be no doubt as to why the players are taking the knee and what it represents in a footballing context,” the governing body said in a statement.
WATCH | Chris Grant on his experience as a longtime fan:
“We encourage those that oppose this action to reflect on the message you are sending to the players you are supporting. Please respect their wishes and remember that we should all be united in the fight to tackle discrimination.”
Nearly half the English squad is made up of non-white players, and big names including Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have used their profiles to raise awareness about racism, supported by their teammates and the England manager, Gareth Southgate.
After the first booing incident, Southgate said the team was determined “more than ever” to keep taking a knee. “The most important thing for our players is for them to know we are totally united on it. We’re totally committed to supporting each other, supporting the team.”
The failure of some members of the U.K.’s governing political class to support the team in this has created a whole new level of controversy.
In an interview with GB News earlier this month, British Home Secretary Priti Patel accused the English players of indulging in “gesture politics.”
In a podcast, the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggested people who booed were reacting to “the underlying political message” of Black Lives Matter, which he suggested was a Marxist movement.
He went on to say that the movement was “not sympathetic to the United Kingdom as a nation.”
Longstanding racism in football
Critics accuse a number of conservative politicians of trying to move the agenda away from the issue of racism itself.
WATCH | England players face backlash over taking a knee before games at Euros:
“Only a fool could believe the crank theories that they have dredged up to confuse the public,” wrote columnist Tony Evans in a recent piece for the Independent newspaper. “The same goes for the booing supporters who claim they are protesting Marxism. They are beyond parody but too many are treating them seriously.”
Race relations in the United Kingdom are already fraught. In March, equality campaigners heavily criticized a government-commissioned report on racial disparity that downplayed institutional racism and praised the U.K. “as a model for other white-majority countries.”
Chris Grant says the reality is documented, ongoing and deep-rooted discrimination.
“It’s really hard to have a middle ground around some of this stuff,” he said. “Either you’re trying to address what’s been going on for a very long time, or you’re not.”
Grant remembers going to see his football hero Ian Wright play a match in 1989 at The Den, as in the lion’s den, the home stadium of Millwall Football Club.
“Every time the ball came near Ian Wright, people booed. A lot of people booed because they didn’t like the idea of a Black player representing England.”
In some cases, they’d throw bananas on to the pitch to insult the players. While that rarely happens now, Grant says that kind of abuse still lives and thrives on social media.
“It’s been about 40 years since I was last called to my face a monkey. The fact that monkey emojis are part of this just … brings back to me the fact that we are going backwards in some ways now.”
The social media effect
British author and sports journalist Musa Okwonga agrees and singles out tech companies for a failure to act.
“You basically have the equivalent of an emotional harpoon you can fire into the heart of someone from across the world. And that is a new thing. That’s a thing that social media has enabled, so there need to be new guidelines for that and there aren’t,” he said.
“When it comes to taking down footage that’s been uploaded by people in breach of copyright, [they] take that down the same afternoon. You’ve got algorithms for that. But when it comes to racial abuse, you don’t have an algorithm for that.”
In May, Manchester United star Marcus Rashford reported some 70 abusive messages on social media after his team lost a match. This was after English football clubs, players and other sporting bodies staged a four-day boycott of social media in a move aimed at online abuse.
At least 70 racial slurs on my social accounts counted so far. For those working to make me feel any worse than I already do, good luck trying 👍🏾
Last year, Rashford made a name for himself outside football by shaming the government into keeping school lunches going for poor children when the pandemic shut down in-person learning.
Okwonga, who is writing a novel with Ian Wright loosely based on the footballer’s life, is outspoken on issues of race in the United Kingdom. Okwonga moved to Berlin, he says, because he was so horrified by British attitudes toward immigrants.
His own parents, both doctors, came to the country from Uganda during the civil war there.
He doesn’t object to people describing taking a knee as a political act, but he doesn’t understand the backlash.
“When did [being political] become pejorative? Women didn’t get the vote by asking nicely. Women had to wrench the vote from the hands of people that couldn’t care less,” Okwonga said.
“The people kneeling would rather get on with life, but racism is stopping them from doing that. And if it’s stopping them from enjoying their places of work, which is what the field of play actually is, then it has to go on the field of play, too.”
He said that “when people say ‘taking the knee, I’ll boo that,’ I think, well, what other form of protest would you suggest that’s respectful?”
Debate brings ‘clarity’
Some Premier League players, including Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, have expressed fatigue with the gesture of taking a knee, saying it isn’t achieving real change.
Others, including Grant and Okwonga, say the conversation it continues to generate is hugely important.
“I’m not sure how long the players will kneel for,” said Okwonga. “I’m not sure when they will retire the gesture. But I think the fact that we’re having this conversation now attests to its impact and its clarity.”
Grant says it offers an opportunity to expand the conversation to breaking down institutional barriers in sport.
“There’s only ever been nine head coaches in the whole of history of the Premier League who weren’t white,” he pointed out.
“So coming back to those players taking the knee, one of the things they know is that although life has changed for players in terms of their opportunity to excel and progress in the game, when they retire and if they want to take up a role in leadership in the game or in coaching, actually, the barriers which were there back in the 1980s are still there.”
Both of Grant’s parents served in the Second World War, one in the army and one in the RAF. He considers himself “a lover of the English landscape and English culture and all good things that there are here.”
“But I’ve never been able to take that for granted,” he said. “I just know and have to understand that in my lifetime, some people will never accept my right, fully, to wear an England shirt as a fan … let alone as a player.”