Another football “controversy” arose when footballers playing in the ongoing UEFA Euro 2020 tournament kneeled down before kick-off in protest against racism, a serious problem that has plagued football stadiums for many years. While some teams and players chose to kneel, others opted not to. Flimsy excuses such as “the players weren’t ready” and “politics should stay out of football” were put forward.
Racism in sport is a very real problem, although it cannot be separated from racism within society in general. In fact, the reactions to the principled stand taken by many players were themselves a reflection of how right-wing, populist and chauvinistic political movements wield massive influence across Europe, to the extent that these movements often define mainstream political sensibilities. Politics, therefore, is already in football, and “taking the knee” is a reaction to negative political manifestations affecting the sport.
For example, the French national team has a number of high profile, largely black and Muslim players. They came under attack from right-wing politicians and media to the point that, on 15 June, the entire team decided not to take the knee at the start of their matches, due to the possibility of racist repercussions.
In this example, racism in sport prevailed over anti-racism solidarity. On top of this, though, the country’s highest football authority, the French Football Federation (FFF), does not even acknowledge the necessity to discuss the issue. FFF president Noel Le Graet was quoted as saying that racism “does not exist”, following an incident last September during the Marseille-Paris Saint Germain match, when PSG’s Brazilian player Neymar was called a “monkey motherf****r” during a scuffle.
Not only are racist incidents during football matches on the rise and well-documented in France and elsewhere, but the “monkey” slur is particularly popular among European football fans who, sometimes in groups, voice so-called “monkey chants” targeting black players. When such a despicable practice finally received national attention in Italy, a court dismissed the case as “unfounded”, and fans who were caught “monkey chanting” on camera were “unconditionally acquitted”.
It was thus unfortunate that only half of the Italian team took the knee before their game against Wales on 20 June, and then decided not to kneel at all in a later game. It is telling that, while racism in sport continues to prevail, anti-racist solidarity is regarded as unnecessary and divisive.The truth is that football, like any other sport, is a reflection of our societies; our unity and divisions; our economic privileges and socio-economic inequalities; our strong communal bonds; and, yes, our racism. Instead of attempting to fully understand and, when necessary, alter these relationships, some simply opt to ignore them altogether.
Assertions that “sport and politics should not mix” are not only wishful thinking — they ignore the fundamental premise that sport is a direct expression of reality — but are also an underhanded way to divert attention from core issues that should concern everyone. We heard the same thing during the apartheid era in South Africa, and we hear the same thing today against efforts to get sportsmen and women, as well as entertainers, to boycott the apartheid state of Israel, a country which, incidentally, is a member of UEFA and plays in its tournaments.
This misleading logic falls within the same category as “All lives matter”, a response to the legitimate outcry for racial justice under the banner “Black lives matter”. The latter is meant to illustrate — in fact, challenge — racism and violence, which disproportionately target black people in the United States specifically because of their skin colour. The former, while completely accurate, is meant to delude and undermine the urgency of confronting systemic racism in society and its institutions.
When American football player Colin Kaepernick kneeled down in 2016 during the national anthem before a game in protest against racial injustice, he meant to be disruptive. This was not to “disgrace” American “values” and “symbols”, but to force millions of people out of their comfort zone to contend with far more consequential questions than winning or losing a football match. His statement was a highly visible act of protest against the mistreatment of black communities across the US. As a black man with access to media platforms, it was his moral duty to speak out, and he did. But that wholly symbolic, non-violent act was perceived by many in government, media and society as treason, which ultimately cost the professional athlete his career.
The entire episode reverberated across the world and the violent, often racist, responses to it were all politically motivated, proving — albeit unwittingly, no doubt — that the relationship between politics and human rights on the one hand, and sports on the other, is impossible to avoid. Interestingly, those who insist that Kaepernick and those who have followed his example violate the sanctity of sport have no qualms about other, essentially political acts being connected with sporting rituals, such as national anthems, flags and nationalist chanting. In the US, soldiers are honoured before games for their service in various wars and, at times, air force jets fly overhead, intoxicating the spectators with the might and power of the US military. Why are such political acts apparently acceptable on sporting occasions, but a single black man kneeling down to shed light on the plight of the innocent victims of police brutality is perceived to be an act of treason?
Sport can, of course, be a source of harmony and unity. Witness the heart-warming exchange between Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and Iran’s Ali Daei when, on 24 June, Ronaldo equalled the international goal-scoring record held by the Iranian player. Sadly, though, sport is also rife with political symbolism and a reflection of deep rooted socio-political ailments.
Racism is a political disease, like a cancer within society. It has to be stopped, on and off the field. While taking the knee will not end racism, this act of solidarity should serve as a conversation starter; a principled stand by players that should be applauded, not condemned as a “controversial” act.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.