From endorsing and supporting the ‘Taking the Knee’ movement to the racial abuse and the private cyber harassment of multiracial characters within the Premier League. Three years on since the campaign has passed and since the start of the campaign, racist behaviour is still very prominent in English football. Has the nation's views on racism changed, or, have they always remained the same?
The origins of ‘Taking The Knee’ & How it became so important in the sporting world
On May 25th, 2020, An African-American man by the name of George Floyd was murdered by a police officer named Derek Chauvin. Derek Chauvin had put George Floyd on the ground in handcuffs for supposedly ‘resisting to get into the police car’ due to claustrophobia whilst he had forced his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, which sadly led to the death of George Floyd.
This incident was recorded by many individuals who witnessed the horrific event which was then posted on multiple social media and also led to an international social movement in protest of the police brutality and the abuse against people of colour under the name of ‘Black Lives Matter’.
Black Lives Matter has been a prominent icon in society in terms of fighting discrimination and has grown dramatically since the death of George Floyd. Protests had sprung out throughout the United States with over half a million people turned up to nearly 550 protests across the U.S. according to The New York Times making the incident one of the biggest protests the world has ever witnessed.
This was only the beginning for sports being involved with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement with Colin Kaepernick being the athlete to inaugurate the movement into sports with an arguably brave, but also arguably controversial move that erupted throughout the sports industry. On September 1st, 2016, American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who played as a quarterback for the San Francisco's 49ers at the time, opted to kneel at the American national anthem before the start of a preseason game whilst he had stood for the national anthem at previous NFL games.
The reason Colin Kaepernick opted to kneel for the American national anthem is because he didn't want to “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppressed black people and people of colour” , Kaepernick told NFL News.
Naturally, this started an uproar of discussions and conversations regarding Kaepernick’s decision to take the knee with many being outraged by his decision. However, one of the biggest conversations that was opened due to Kaepernick opting to kneel was the discussion of racial abuse both inside and outside of the sporting industry and thus made this single moment from Kaepernick one of the biggest symbols for fighting racism within the sporting industry What caused the Premier League to inaugurate ‘Taking The Knee’ in the Premier League?
Around the same time that the George Floyd incident had happened with the world in solitary with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the Premier League was ready to return after the postponement of the league due to the spread of COVID-19 around the world. Before the Premier League had started their games again after the virus outbreak, they initiated Project Restart which was a project that held discussions with many Premier League officials, the government, clubs, players and stakeholders of the Premier League to help the league start up again efficiently whilst making the health and well-being of everyone involved the highest priority. There were six agendas involved in this project such as the support for the NHS with all clubs taking part to raise money by donating, selling shirts, players giving part of their wages to the NHS & etc. Another agenda being the support for the LGBT+ with all players involved in the Premier League wearing rainbow laces and having a rainbow captain armband for each match. Supposedly, the last agenda in the project was race and the Premier League’s stance moving forward.
According to Troy Deeney in his book, Troy Deeney: Redemption, everyone had acted “swiftly” and “decisively” about other pressing issues and everyone was united about the support for the NHS and LGBT+. Apparently there was never a discussion about that “kind of stuff”.
However, when the Premier League had a final meeting with all the Premier League club captains before the initiation of ‘Project Restart’ according to Troy Deeney it felt like the meeting was being “wrapped up” when they had landed on the topic of race.
Troy Deeney wrote in his book that “I don’t think it was a deliberate attempt to avoid the conversation. I genuinely think it’s such an uncomfortable topic for some people that they do their best to avoid it and sometimes that’s subconscious”.
Troy Deeney supposedly let out a heartfelt rant in the meeting of how important it is for the Premier League to make a stance against racism with all the club captains at the current time with the likes of Ben Mee (Burnley captain), Seamus Colemen (Everton captain), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City captain) as well as other Premier League captains coming together with the Premier League to implement ‘Taking The Knee’ before every match for the following season.
It was the start of a movement in English football that had spread like wildfire, everyone was talking about the decision to include the kneeling before every match and whether it was the correct decision or not.
Although this should have been the foundation of fighting racism within English football, it could be heavily argued that it actually showcased the levels of racism that still exists in modern day football and whether or not the initiation of ‘Taking The Knee’ from the Premier League was with pure intentions for monetary value from bringing in commercial interests… Did the Premier League use the Black Lives Matter movement to gain financially?
Many critics and observers within the media and the general public had argued that the Premier League support for the Black Lives Matter movement was mainly symbolic and was used to drive commercial interests.
The Premier League is a high revenue run business that relies on lucrative commercial interests which was a big factor for this argument from critics and observers as it shows that if the Premier League didn’t stand by the movement, how harsh would the backlash had been from external stakeholders? Would the Premier League have been in financial jeopardy? There is no denying that there was genuine effort inside the Premier League from clubs, players and officials to fight the racial inequality in football and society, but it’s important to keep in mind how they would have been affected financially if they decided to not follow the Black Lives Matter movement, especially when they decided to stop kneeling before every match just over a year after it started.
Gary Neville had spoken on the decision to stop taking the knee on Twitter and how he was unsure on the decision.
He said “Not sure how I feel about this at all. It was the most public demonstration to young people in this country that their heroes were fighting inequality. It’s something my 12 + 13 year old would comment on/notice before each game. Back to wearing t-shirts once a season it is then!”
In August, 2022, The Premier League had made the decision to limit taking the knee before matches and instead have given players the option to take the knee before matches. A meeting between the Premier League and the Premier League captains had taken place in regards to limiting the kneel.
In a statement from the Premier league, the Premier League captains have said the following. "We have decided to select significant moments to take the knee during the season to highlight our unity against all forms of racism and in so doing we continue to show solidarity for a common cause.
"We remain resolutely committed to eradicate racial prejudice, and to bring about an inclusive society with respect and equal opportunities for all." Interestingly, the Premier League as of very recently has decided to bring back the kneeling before matches after having another meeting with the Premier League captains. The reason behind this is due to the Premier League as well as the captains wanting to show their ongoing commitment to fight racism and all forms of discrimination. It’s fascinating to see how when taking the knee was first implemented in the Premier League it was meant to be the foundation of fighting racism within English football, a huge strong point to fight the discriminatory behaviour that has been witnessed in the Premier League for many years. Compare it to now where it seems as if the whole league is unsure of where to stand with the movement with many high figures in English football questioning the movement as a whole. John Barnes, Ex England player had stated that he believes “football can do nothing to change racism" according to Sky News.
He goes on to say “Until we change the perception of the average black person, we will never combat racism,"
“Any discrimination towards any footballer is a very small, minute part of racial discrimination towards black people. Is taking the knee going to change someone who's racially biassed? They can take the knee as much as they want. Taking the knee isn't going to change anything."
John Barnes isn’t the only high figure within English Football to believe that taking the knee won't change people’s racial bias
Is racial abuse still prominent in English football? Unfortunately, racial abuse still very much exists in modern day English football with the most recent incident being inside a League Two match between Gillingham and Newport County when a home supporter (Gillingham) could be seen imitating a monkey in front of Newport player, Omar Bogle, after scoring his first goal within the match.
Gladly, within hours after the incident, Gillingham FC had issued a lifetime ban on the player and the fan was later arrested for the incident Another recent case which happened within the Premier League was the match between Newcastle & Arsenal where Newcastle released a statement stating that they “strongly condemn racist abuse” that was sent to Joe Willock and Bruno Guimaraes. The Premier League also came out and made a statement regarding the racial abuse that had happened in the Newcastle VS Arsenal match.
In their statement the Premier League said they "condemn any form of discriminatory abuse and actively work with all players, clubs, platforms, and authorities to help bring offenders of hate crime to justice". Did the ‘Taking The Knee’ movement positively impact the Premier League
It’s a complex and complicated situation where it would be difficult to narrow down the impact as a whole it’s had on the Premier League. However, the biggest impact as mentioned previously is that it’s opened the conversation of race on the abuse players receive because of the colour of their skin.
The conversation being opened allowed discussions and opinions become public. One of them being Wilfred Zaha who was a significant figure in the Premier League at the time and was the captain of Crystal Palace. On the 18th of February, 2021, WIlfired Zaha had announced that he would no longer take the knee before every match but would instead ‘stand tall’.
The reason Wilfred Zaha made this decision to stand tall was down to how “growing up, my parents just let me know that I should just be proud to be black, no matter what, and I just think we should stand tall”
“I think the meaning behind the whole thing is becoming something that we just do now. That’s not enough. I’m not going to take the knee.” The Guardian reported. Wilfred Zaha had felt that the racism that black players were receiving online suggested that the movement was not making a difference and that “Unless there’s change, don’t ask me about it. Unless action is going to happen I don’t want to hear about it.”
Les Ferdinand, the former director of football at QPR, believed that the impact of taking the knee had “diluted” and that the movement was comparable to “a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge” according to The Guardian
With highly influential figures within English football making comments publicly on how the movement was not making a difference and how the movement had diluted, it begs the question whether the Premier League truly took advantage of the ‘taking the knee’ movement to bring in commercial interests in order to gain financially. Has the Premier League continued its fight against racism?
In February 2021, the Premier League announced a ‘No Room For Racism’ action plan which consisted of 6 commitments with the fifth commitment taking action against racism. The commitment consisted of communicating with fans to urge them to report and challenge any racist behaviour that partakes in football and society as a whole as well as focusing on education within the Premier League community programmes targeting primary and secondary school ensuring discriminatory behaviour isn't taking place. The Premier League had stated that “if you are not a fan of this diversity, you are not a fan. That is why there is no room for racism. Anywhere.”
The Premier League also announced in August 2021 that they would be banning fans from Premier League grounds if they were found being involved in any discriminatory behaviour.