Few expected English fans to boo their own team at the start of this year’s European Football Championship, but that’s exactly what happened when the entire team went to its knees in a gesture against racism and discrimination.
When the team moved into the second round of the tournament, the cheers largely drowned out the boos. But the apparent reluctance of some senior government officials to endorse the team’s gesture – or to shout out to those who boo – has rekindled the debate about racism in English sports and society.
“I’ve been attending soccer games as a Black fan for nearly 50 years,” said Chris Grant, an independent board member of Sport England, a royal charter organization committed to ensuring access to sport for all.
“It was a hairy experience when I was there for the first time,” said Grant. “It was challenging in many ways and things were said and sung and thrown and all sorts of things. We have had a steady process throughout my life that has improved.”
But not anymore, he says.
“If I’m being honest, there hasn’t been a moment in the past 20 or 30 years that I’ve been so worried [as right now] that things could get a lot worse before they get better. “
According to figures from Kick It Out, the equality and inclusion organization of English football, reported racial abuse in professional football rose 53 percent between this season and last season. Reports of discrimination increased by 42 percent.
Mocked as “gesture politics”
Premier League and Championship League players began to kneel last June following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world.
The English team decided to continue this during the European Championship, which started in mid-June. They were whistled at by some of their own fans during the warm-up matches, and the English Football Association (FA) reacted quickly.
“There can be no doubt why the players take the knee and what that means in a football context,” the governing body said in a statement.
CLOCK | Chris Grant on his experience as a longtime fan:
âWe encourage those who oppose this action to ponder the message you are sending to the players you support. Please respect their wishes and remember that we should all be united in the fight against discrimination. ”
Almost half of the English squad is made up of non-white players and big names like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have used their profiles to raise awareness of racism, supported by their teammates and England coach Gareth Southgate.
After the initial booing incident, Southgate said the team were “more determined than ever” to keep getting on their knees. “The most important thing for our players is that they know we are absolutely united. We are determined to support each other, support the team.”
The failure of some members of the UK’s ruling political class to support the team has sparked a whole new controversy.
In an interview with GB News earlier this month, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel accused English players of indulging in “gesture politics”.
In a podcast, Conservative House of Commons Chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that people who were booed were responding to “the underlying political message” of Black Lives Matter, which he believed was a Marxist movement.
He went on to say that the movement “does not sympathize with the UK as a nation”.
Longstanding racism in football
Critics accuse a number of conservative politicians of wanting to move the agenda away from the issue of racism themselves.
CLOCK | England’s players have to kneel before the European Championship games
“Only a fool can believe the crazy theories they unearthed to confuse the public,” wrote columnist Tony Evans in a recent article for the Independent. “The same goes for the booing supporters who claim to protest against Marxism. They are beyond parody, but too many treat them seriously.”
Racial relations in the UK are already strained. In March, equality activists heavily criticized a government-commissioned report on racial differences that downplayed institutional racism and praised Britain as “a model for other white majority countries”.
Chris Grant says the reality is documented, persistent, and ingrained discrimination.
“It’s really hard to strike a middle ground on some of these things,” he said. “Either you’re trying to tackle what’s been going on for a long time, or you’re not.”
Grant remembers seeing his soccer hero Ian Wright playing a game at The Den in 1989, like at The Lions Den, home of Millwall Football Club.
“Every time the ball got close to Ian Wright, people booed. A lot of people booed because they didn’t like the idea of ââa black representing England.”
In some cases, they threw bananas on the field to insult the players. While this is rare now, Grant says this type of abuse still lives and thrives on social media.
“It’s been about 40 years since I was last called in my face as a monkey. The fact that monkey emojis go with it just brings back the fact that we’re now going backwards in a way.”
The social media effect
British writer and sports journalist Musa Okwonga agrees, citing tech companies as failures.
“You basically have the equivalent of an emotional harpoon that you can shoot into the heart of someone from all over the world. And that’s a new thing. This is a thing that social media made possible, so there has to be new guidelines for that and “not” there, he said.
“When it comes to removing footage uploaded by people who violate copyright law, [they] take that off that same afternoon. There are algorithms for that. But when it comes to racial abuse, you don’t have an algorithm for it. ”
In May, Manchester United star Marcus Rashford reported around 70 abusive messages on social media after his team lost a game. This came after English football clubs, players and other sports organizations staged a four-day boycott of social media to commit online abuse.
At least 70 racist slurs have been counted on my social accounts so far. To those who are working to make me feel even worse than I already do, good luck trying
Last year, Rashford made a name for himself outside of football by shaming the government into keeping school lunches for poor children when the pandemic ended face-to-face learning.
Okwonga, who writes a novel with Ian Wright loosely based on the football player’s life, is open about racial issues in the UK. Okwonga moved to Berlin, he says, because he was so appalled by the British attitude towards immigrants.
His own parents, both doctors, came to the country from Uganda during the civil war.
He doesn’t mind people calling kneeling 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 take voices from people who didn’t care, “Okwonga said.
“The kneeling people would rather get on with life, but racism prevents them from doing so. And if it prevents them from enjoying what the field of play is, then it has to go to the field.” also play. ”
He said, “When people say, ‘take the knee, I’m going to boo that’ I think, well what other form of protest would you suggest that is respectful?”
Debate brings “clarity”
Some Premier League players, including Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, have expressed their fatigue with the gesture of taking a knee, saying it won’t bring any real change.
Others, including Grant and Okwonga, say the conversation she continues to produce is hugely important.
“I’m not sure how long the players will kneel,” said Okwonga. “I’m not sure when you will withdraw the gesture. But I think the fact that we are having this conversation now shows its impact and its clarity.”
Grant says it provides an opportunity to broaden the conversation to include breaking down institutional barriers in sport.
“In all of the history of the Premier League, there have only been nine non-white head coaches,” he said.
“Going back to the knee-jerk players, they know that while players’ lives have changed in terms of their ability to excel and progress in the game, by the time they retire and want to take on a role in leadership in the game or in coaching, actually the barriers that existed in the 1980s are still there. ”
Both of Grant’s parents served in World War II, one in the army and one in the RAF. He describes himself as “a lover of the English countryside and culture and all the good things there are”.
“But I have never been able to take that for granted,” he said. “I just know and understand that some people in my life will never accept my right to wear an England shirt as a fan … let alone as a player.”