In a very toxic age of politics and fragmented society, no small gesture or act can go unnoticed or be taken at face value anymore, despite the good intentions clearly communicated.
The England Men’s football team has again been put under significant scrutiny by the media and fans. However, rather than the usual excessive pre-tournament national pressure driving high expectations, or the private lives of the players making headlines - ‘taking the knee’ to promote awareness of racism has been met with booing from England fans.
This occurred during two friendlies against Austria and Romania in early and in the opening European Championship fixture at Wembley, with England beating Croatia 1-0.
However, this isn’t the first time backlash has occurred. Both Millwall and Colchester fans voiced their displeasure at the gesture in their own league games back in December 2020. It’s clear that, despite a year passing since George Floyd’s murder and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many critics are still entrenched in their values.
Despite footballers facing consistent racism on social media which has largely been ignored, fans have tried to justify the booing as kneeling having “run its course” and “lost its meaning”. In the most extreme view, some believe that taking the knee is a political statement in support of Marxism.
Yet, politicians have continuously misunderstood this statement as a political issue blown out of proportion. Home Secretary Priti Patel labelled the act as “gesture politics” which supported the Black Lives Matter movement that has been supposedly devastating the country.
Education Minister Gillian Keegan claimed taking the knee was "creating division". Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith tweeted that the England players were supporting the political goals of BLM, which include "crushing capitalism, defunding the police, destroying the nuclear family and attacking Israel".
While this controversy manifests in the media, the launch of GB News only added fuel to the fire – it’s clear that many people have misunderstood the point of kneeling. The act itself is respectful, a peaceful protest started by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016. Kaepernick consulted former US Army Green Beret Nate Boyer to make his protest less distasteful, after previously sitting during the national anthem.
The current problem is that small acts to initiate conversations are being hijacked to force a particular narrative against the players. This is despite players clearly stating their intentions for kneeling and what it personally means to them. Putting words in the mouths of the players and trying to speak for them is a dangerous narrative to pursue, effectively undermining a cause everyone should be behind.
It is true that actions speak louder than words, so it’s fair when footballers like Wilfred Zaha demand more than just the minimum. Clubs and footballers are role models for their communities and have been at the forefront of demanding regulation by social media companies.
Players have put their money where their mouth is, always giving to charitable causes and in the case of Marcus Rashford, going above and beyond to provide free school meals to children from lower income backgrounds. Sometimes we tend to forget that footballers are people too, meaning they have experienced hardships and racism as much as anyone else has. Using their platform to create conversation and enact positive changes should be commended and respected.
So, while the booing is likely to continue as long as players still take the knee, it is not surprising that this is being witnessed. In a very toxic age of politics and fragmented society, no small gesture or act can go unnoticed or be taken at face value anymore, despite the good intentions clearly communicated.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.