With a glance at the history of protest actions in sport, Deputy Editor Ilaria Riccio assesses whether Premier League teams “taking the knee” against racism upholds football’s - and sports - anti-discrimination commitments.
Since the summer of 2020, football fans as well as casual enjoyers of the sport witnessed players “taking the knee” before kick-off in the English Premier League. With this gesture, the Premier League expressed its solidarity with the concurrent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, participating in the fight against racism. Taking the knee was a match-daily occurrence until the 2021-22 season, whilst it is reserved to designated occasions since the 2022-23 season - specifically, the inaugural and closing matches, selected matchday weeks dedicated to the “No Room for Racism” campaign, and the Boxing Day fixtures. Furthermore, the English national team took the knee before every match they played at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Despite the good intentions behind it, taking the knee has sparked conversations well before it was introduced in the Premier League, echoing longstanding controversies on whether sport can be a platform for social activism.
Despite the good intentions behind it, taking the knee has sparked conversations well before it was introduced in the Premier League, echoing longstanding controversies related to sport being used as a platform for social activism.
Taking the knee as a form of protest in sport dates back to 2016, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the US national anthem ahead of a pre-season game. Kaepernick explained his protest as him refusing “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour.” Kaepernick was not the first athlete to stand up against racial injustice in the United States: at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black gloves and socks whilst standing on the podium after a 200-metre sprint race, raising their fists during the playing of the American national anthem.
Despite the social message behind these actions, controversy ensued. For instance, Smith and Carlos were suspended by the American Olympics Committee, whilst Kaepernick has not played a match in the National Football League (NFL) since 2016 and is still without a team. Former US President Donald Trump was Kaepernick’s most vocal opponent, fiercely criticising him for disrespecting the national anthem. The Premier League and the England National Team were not exempt from criticism when they began taking the knee in solidarity with BLM, with former Home Secretary Priti Patel describing the act as mere “gesture politics”.
Whilst this backlash stems from the belief that politics should stay out of sports, a broader conversation is required to address in what way sport can be useful in achieving meaningful change with regards to social issues - racism in particular. For instance, the Premier League elaborated a strategy to eradicate all forms of discrimination from football as part of their No Room for Racism campaign, which includes pathways to ensure greater equality across all sectors of the football industry. The strategy includes collaborations with organisations whose primary objective is to make football an inclusive environment - notably Kick it Out. However, it appears that this strategy is not producing its desired effects, as racism persists both on and off the pitch. For instance, on 2nd October, Tottenham Hotspur released an official statement condemning the racist abuse received by player Destiny Udogie following Spurs’ match against Liverpool on 30th September.
Whilst this backlash stems from the belief that politics should stay out of sports, a broader conversation is required to address in what way sport can be useful in achieving meaningful change with regards to social issues - racism in particular.
The role of protest actions in sports will perhaps remain a polarising matter. Nevertheless, if gestures like taking the knee are not accompanied by effective commitments to render sports more inclusive, taking the knee comes across as performative rather than an opportunity to use a global platform to enact meaningful change.