In the summer of 2016, Colin Kaepernick’s actions during a San Francisco 49ers game set a precedent for Black Lives Matter activism. Taking a knee rather than standing during the national anthem, his legacy has carried through to this day even across the pond. In response to the murder of George Floyd earlier this year, and in solidarity with the BLM movement, football players across England have become accustomed to taking a knee before their matches. Yet, Queens Park Rangers were picked out in the media for not taking the knee, with Les Ferdinand calling it an ‘empty gesture’. Is he right to say that taking a knee has become futile?
It is first worth pointing out how the difference between UK and US culture has served to ‘dilute’ the gesture’s meaning in Ferdinand’s eyes. It is much more common in American football for the national anthem to play before each fixture. English fans, though, are only accustomed to hearing that during international football games. Taking the knee was a metaphorical burn to the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. Without the music, the gesture doesn’t have quite the same disruptive impact in English football.
Also, the first time we saw players taking the knee in England was after the return of the Premier League, when Aston Villa hosted Sheffield United. Yet, this instance wasn’t scheduled by any higher power, the players were simply taking the first moments of match time to protest. Now, having it scheduled into every match just smells of tokenism. This completely dispels the disruptive edge it had in the first place.
Ferdinand compared the act to ‘Clap for Carers’, which was so prominent in the early days of the national lockdown; while it was recognised as a good PR move, its message has since been lost. NHS workers are still criminally underappreciated by the government for the job they do (but that is a story for another day).
In any case, the fact that QPR’s discontinuing of taking the knee was noteworthy is a good sign. It demonstrates where peoples’ loyalties lie, and proves that more and more people want to be united behind the Black Lives Matter movement. The fact remains, however, that simply taking a knee will not be enough to fight injustice.
Taking the knee as a movement has strangely become a victim of its own success in that sense. The fact that it is so engrained in Premier League football now, appearing on our screens each weekend, has led to it becoming trivialised. Statements in support of movements like Black Lives Matter need to catch the eye; they need to become something that will be talked about on social media, provoking discussion, inciting change, and challenging the status quos. Lewis Hamilton’s shirt about Breonna Taylor was a perfect example of this, as it brought new media attention to a still unresolved crime.
There is an oft-quoted saying that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Kaepernick’s famous first gesture was back in 2016, and the problems plaguing society both in the United States and here in the United Kingdom have not gone away. Now, what seems insane is enduring with a futile gesture: it simply hasn’t changed enough. Ferdinand is right to say that we need a change of course, before we become blind to what it is that we’re supporting. The conversation on race has moved on since 2016, where we take it now depends on the course of our next actions.
Image: brent flanders via Creative Commons