While Dominic Raab was scoring an own goal citing the origins of taking the knee in relation to Black Lives Matter (BLM) as from “Game of Thrones”, the Premier League took a welcomed stance on the matter. Sports has given the symbolic action meaning in recent times through quarterback Colin Kapernick kneeling during the United States anthem. However, and not only for the benefit of Mr. Raab, the movement however has a longer, profound legacy within the Civil Rights Movement following the arrests of tens of demonstrators in protest marches in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Civil rights marchers including Martin Luther King Jr were captured kneeling in silent protest.
The Premier League are ordinarily no saints. The League has been known for its ruthless commercialisation in recent years. One only has to look at the high ticket prices at many stadia, escalating player salaries, and the role of agents as examples. As a wider critique of capitalism, one only has look at the wages of low paid staff in stadiums in comparison to footballers such as Alexis Sanchez. However, the Premier League must be given credit for taking a stance on Black Lives Matter (BLM) in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. On the back of shirts, “Black Lives Matter” will feature in the first twelve matches of the season, and not the players’ names. Players up and down the country have taken a knee in support of the movement, and BLM will feature as a badge on players’ shirts. Many prominent players including Raheem Sterling, the Manchester City star player, has long been vocal and spoken publicly against alleged racism whether in the stands, or how media stories of young black players are construed.
The bullish stance on BLM pales in comparison to responses by other leagues around the world. Some leagues have tolerated individual and team protests. In Germany and Spain players will not be yellow carded for messages of protest, and teams such as Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin have taken a knee before the game. The National Football League (NFL), where the recent origins of the kneeing protest, handled it worse. The League voted in 2018, thirty in favour and two in abstention, to require all players to stand or stay in the locker room. Damages claims for grievances held by Kaepernick and Eric Reid, another player, were settled out of court for allegations of collusion against the hiring of both players, at the time free agents, for their protest stance. Only in recent weeks has the NFL taken a u-turn, with commissioner Roger Goodell admitting “we were wrong for not listening”.
The point to make is that sport can take a lead on pressing social issues of our time, while our institutions slowly react. Throughout history sport has often lead the way, a catalyst for social change. We should always remember how sport has transformed the world on social issues. We can recall Jessie Owens undermining Nazi racial theories about Aryan supremacy at the Olympics. Jackie Robinson, undermining the logic of segregation, by breaking the colour barrier to play in Major League Baseball. Billie Jean King fighting for equal pay in tennis, and supporting equal pay in the workplace. The embrace of multiculturalism in France following celebrations of France’s 1998 World Cup win against narrow nationalism.
We must hope that the stance of the Premier League on racial injustice will be felt in the UK and around the world. While our institutions may be slow to change, and our politicians such as Dominic Raab misstep, hopefully the actions of footballers whether it be taking a knee, or speaking up for social justice will provide an awareness and impetus for social change. Let’s hope that the Premier League continue these positive steps.