Taking the knee in sport has become a well-known anti-racism statement since 2016 when American footballer Colin Kaepernick took the knee during the national anthem before a preseason game. Kaepernick’s reasoning was that he could not stand and be proud of the flag of a country that oppresses black people. This action has since caused a divide in sport and its fans across the globe.
Originally, Kapernick was sitting during the US national anthem. However, after talking to former NFL player and ex-special forces soldier Nate Boyer, he decided that taking the knee was more respectful to veterans. Boyer highlighted how taking the knee in our society is often used to show respect: you kneel when you are given an award, kneel to propose, and kneel to pray.
In May 2020, when George Floyd, an unarmed African-American, was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin, taking the knee was used during Black Lives Matter protests taking place all over the world. In the Premier League in the UK, which resumed after Covid-19 restrictions eased, every team decided to take the knee before kick-off in solidarity with demonstrators.
England’s football team decided to take the knee before games in the Euro 2020 tournament, with other countries, including Wales, Scotland, and Portugal joining them. However, some spectators in the stadium would boo the players during this gesture.
The controversy over taking the knee extended from fans disagreeing to members of the UK government taking a view. Home Secretary, Priti Patel called the symbol ‘gesture politics’ and did not support it. Patel then refused to condemn fans who booed the England players, stating it was their choice.
Boris Johnson was also criticised by Labour for not being harsh enough towards the booing fans. Opposition to taking the knee comes from it being viewed as a political statement, supporting the organisation Black Lives Matter.
However, England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, expressed this was not the reason the players were doing it. That it was to support each other. Anthony Joshua, the heavyweight champion, recently explained to Gary Neville that he felt that the England football team had more than adequately explained their reasoning around taking the knee.
Joshua himself said he would take a knee and that it would not be supporting a political stance, nor would it be about funding or defunding organisations. Instead, it is about loyalty to one another.
And this support and loyalty evidently became much needed in the wake of the Euros final. England players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho, who all missed penalties, were subject to extensive racial abuse via the internet and vandalism. For supporters of taking the knee, the aftermath of the Euros final highlighted how racism’s presence in football is an inarguable fact.
Displays of taking the knee have also occurred all over the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has relaxed Rule 50, which typically bans political, religious, and racial propaganda and demonstrations. This relaxation has allowed athletes to express their views before and after events, but not during events, victory presentations, or in the Olympic Village.
Great Britain’s women’s football team took the knee before all their games in Japan. Other displays include British and Irish Lions Test player Maro Itoje. He has been taking the knee before kick-off in South Africa and has vocalised his beliefs that racism is a societal issue, not just sporting.
But where is this movement going? Some teams and players have made the decision to stop taking the knee. Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League player to stop, not because he disagreed with kneeling, but because he felt not enough was being done to tackle discrimination.
Recently, Sheffield Wednesday tweeted that their players will not be taking the knee this season because although they support what kneeling represents, they feel it is time to move past gestures and take action.
The taking the knee movement has drawn attention to issues of racial inequality and, particularly within the Premier League, has helped raise awareness of campaigns fighting racism.
People want to focus on taking the knee less and, instead, shift the discussion to the more critical issue of systematic and structural racism present in sport and our society.
Regardless of whether athletes may start or stop taking the knee, the end goal is clear; more needs to be done about discrimination and racial inequality.
Image Credit: Balkan Photos via Flickr