The Guardian view on footballers taking the knee: don’t boo, cheer | Editorial

The decision by the England football squad to “take the knee” was a landmark in recognising that racism is a pernicious blight on the game. This has been a slow process spanning decades, but it has gained momentum since the murder of George Floyd last year. There is a crisis in the sport: black players, who are over-represented on the pitch, are abused on and off it.

Non-white footballers in the world’s richest league face horrendous racism online. Racist match taunts have not disappeared. The England football team has debated walking off the pitch rather than putting up with abuse. Footballers in Euro 2020 ought to be congratulated for pre-match kneeling to show their opposition to racism.

The gesture was taken from the United States, where the American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the US national anthem to start a debate on police brutality and racial injustice. Kaepernick’s right to make a political statement in this manner was initially supported by the National Football League, his employer and his coach. He had begun “sit down” protests months earlier, but a meeting with a US army veteran convinced him that kneeling was a more respectful way of dissenting.

If this symbol of defiance was going to go anywhere in sport, it would have surely ended up in the beautiful game, which has revealed many ugly truths about racism and identity. Kaepernick, an African American sportsman, was subjected to boos and jeers in the same way that a section of English fans responded to footballers last season. In the US, the hate and anger had been encouraged by the racist signalling in which Donald Trump personally targeted Kaepernick.

On Monday, No 10 failed to condemn “football fans” who boo players taking the knee. The public jeering of a simple anti-racism gesture is a shameful, hurtful act. The government has displayed a troubling tendency to blame both sides, suggesting that those campaigning for equality in society invited a foam-flecked response. There is no moral equivalence between those who are intolerant of hatred and those who are prepared to tolerate it. Boris Johnson might accept racism is a bad thing but he won’t say anti-racist gestures are a good thing.

Freedom of expression has political value. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, it changed 20th-century history – and their lives. Both suffered for speaking out. Similarly, Kaepernick, his supporters say, was blackballed for his advocacy. England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, has taken a firm and principled stance. There’s strength in his team hanging together on this issue.

Footballers are not obliged to keep their indignation about racism to themselves. Racial hatred will not go away by being ignored. English football has worked hard to kick out racism. England’s supporters should not let the side down. This month, in a major European tournament, footballers will shift dissidence from the periphery of British life to primetime television with a single gesture. It is an act that cannot be taken back and speaks volumes, in terms of race, about how far football has come – and how far the game still has to go.

Source link