On Saturday, ahead of kick-off in Millwall and Derby County’s Championship match, boos rang out from sections of the 2,000 socially distanced home supporters as both teams’ players bent down on one knee. The taking of the knee – an act transplanted across the Atlantic like so much of the discourse on racism this year – has been a pre-game ritual in the top two tiers of English football since its return in June.
The boos have been condemned from most quarters as a shocking affront to the beautiful game’s united front against racism. No surprises there. But this reaction is futile: whether you tut ‘typical racist Millwall’ or, ludicrously, claim it is the fault of “Brexit Britain”, all you are doing is focusing on the event itself and lazily asserting what it represents based on your own preconceptions.
For what is important about the booing is not that it happened but that those who took part believe that their actions were legitimate. They would deny, likely vociferously, any accusation that they support unequal treatment of individuals based on their skin colour or ethnic background. Instead, they would argue that Black Lives Matters is a Marxist organisation – not a movement – committed to policies which they perceive as deeply damaging, particularly to the societal and historical fabric of the United Kingdom. In spite of official FA statements to the contrary, they would contend that taking the knee represents a submission to draconian political doctrines, a submission which has been meekly accepted by clubs without any consultation of supporters who consider themselves to be their vital component.
That we have reached the point where the meaning of a bent knee is openly and directly contested should not be a surprise. For six months, ahead of every single game, clubs have performed the same action of antiracist commitment without anything being done against the sporting and societal racism which the bending of a knee is meant to oppose, thus withering away its significance to the point of mere formality and stripping it of any meaning it once had. Taking the knee has become a symbolic purgatory, a perpetual pledge to do something which has not resulted in anything at all. This is not to claim that this explains why Millwall supporters chose to boo – that is for no one to claim apart from the supporters themselves – but it is why we must pause to question why so little has actually been achieved since these now empty gestures were first made.
Besides exploiting public sentiment for PR and the inadvertent resignation of Football Association chairman Greg Clarke, nothing has changed in English football, let alone in British politics or policing, since Black Lives Matter protests were reinvigorated by the killing of George Floyd in May. There has been no structural transformation in the way football is run, nor have any reforms been proposed to challenge the underrepresentation of ethnic minority individuals in boardrooms, managers’ offices and behind-the-scenes set ups. Real change is therefore what the focus must be, not expressing outrage at one event and then moving swiftly on. The uproar caused by one event of booing, however shocking and however loud, is frankly embarrassing when compared to the silence with which the total absence of change to football’s governing fundamentals has been met.
Image: joshjdss via Wikimedia Commons