Before the television presenter Guto Harri took the knee live on air — which cost him his job at GB News last week — he explained that his understanding of the gesture had changed. Having initially thought of it as political with a capital ‘p’, he now realised that in the eyes of most people, including England’s young football players, it is simply a way of expressing your opposition to racism, as well as solidarity with its victims. It is not an expression of support for the Black Lives Matter organisation or its more controversial aims.
In retrospect, that seems pretty obvious. Professional footballers, who tend to be multi-millionaires, drive expensive cars and have young children, do not want to end capitalism, defund the police or dismantle the nuclear family. But like Guto, I had difficulty getting past my initial reaction to seeing them taking the knee because in my mind the gesture is linked to BLM — an impression reinforced by Premier League players wearing BLM badges on their shirts last year and football clubs unfurling huge banners in their stadiums saying ‘Black Lives Matter’. However, I now accept that when players start taking the knee again in a few weeks’ time — the first Championship game is on 6 August — it will not be because they’re rabid neo-Marxists.
I just wish the same latitude could be extended to the fans. Danny Finkelstein devoted his Times column to this subject last week, pointing out, correctly, that any Conservative politician picking a fight with the England players over this issue was bound to come off worse. But he went on to say, quite wrongly in my view, that when fans boo players taking the knee it is ‘racial abuse wearing the clothes of political argument’ and claimed they were the very same people who racially abused the black England players on Twitter and Instagram after the Euro 2020 final.
That cannot be true because we know a majority of the racial abuse came from social media users outside the UK, so they can’t be the same people who booed the England players. Was there some overlap? It’s hard to know for sure, but I can offer some anecdotal evidence that suggests the booing fans aren’t knuckle-dragging racists. Late last year, the Free Speech Union, which I run, was contacted by a fan of a Championship club who’d been temporarily banned from the stadium for booing players taking the knee. (This was during the short window when fans were allowed back into grounds.)
He was summoned to a meeting with club officials to explain himself and we sent a barrister along to make the case for his defence, which included pointing out that he’d been a long-standing supporter of the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign against racism in football, as was clear from his Facebook page. His reason for booing was because he associated the gesture with BLM and didn’t like the intrusion of politics into the sport he loved. He cited the rule the Football Association has about players and managers not endorsing political causes on the pitch and said he would have booed if they’d signalled their support for a right-wing cause. Even Lord Finkelstein would have been persuaded, I think, that this man was a decent, upstanding citizen and I’m pleased to say the ban was lifted.
The footballing pundit Gary Lineker made a similar argument to Danny’s earlier in the Euros, telling the fans booing the England players taking the knee that they were part of the reason they were doing it. I think this assumption — that if you boo, you must be a racist — is rooted in the poor reputation of football supporters, particularly England fans. But as a QPR season ticket holder, as well as someone who has travelled the world with England’s army of supporters, I think that reputation is undeserved. There are a few bad apples, but no more than in any crowd, and probably fewer racists, given that the teams they support reflect the multi-ethnic make-up of modern Britain. In all my years of following football, I’ve never seen any bananas thrown on the pitch, or heard a monkey chant, or anything of that kind. The lazy caricature of fans as National Front supporters in football shirts is at least 50 years out of date.
I hope that when the new season gets under way, the spectators interpret the taking of the knee in the way the players intend it and don’t disrespect them. But if some fans do boo, I hope the same benefit of the doubt will be extended to them and they won’t be penalised.
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