TO knee or not to knee? That was the question when the captains of the Premier League’s 20 clubs met last week. They decided finally to end the controversial anti-racism/virtue-signalling (take your pick) gesture in time for the start of the new season.
Well, almost; the gesture will return for cameo appearances at key games (or is that just a sop to defuse the anger of the perpetually enraged who see sport as an adjunct to the social justice movement?) But it won’t be a regular feature.
‘We have decided to select significant moments to take the knee during the season to highlight our unity against all forms of racism, and in so doing we continue to show solidarity for a common cause,’ said a statement from the captains.
Officially the decision was taken because the gesture had lost its ‘gravitas’ but cynics will be wondering what ‘gravitas’ (a word one suspects is not often heard in dressing rooms) it ever had. They might also be curious about whether there is any connection to the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, where FIFA will surely be keen to see a suspension of all politically related gestures for its already scandal-burdened showpiece. The timing is propitious: if the England national team followed the Premier League’s lead, it would be sufficiently in advance of the tournament which begins in November to preclude the accusation of surrendering to FIFA’s prerogatives.
Sceptics will also wonder if the Lionesses’ triumph at the Euros had an impact on the decision. Anti-sexism is the new game in town, with racism looking a bit passé. Gesturing towards the old causes was getting a bit ragged towards the end of the Euros, with a poorly co-ordinated (some players didn’t bother) knee-take before the final at Wembley and only a few of the players sporting Pride armbands. Added to which, now that we are officially winners again, there is less need for gestures which armour the team against criticism and compensate somewhat for on-the-pitch failures.
Whatever the rationale, it is surely time to ask what has been achieved and what have we learned from this strange two-year-long performative ritual? Has racism been eradicated from the game? Have the neanderthal fans been ‘educated’, as England manager Gareth Southgate put it? Well . . . no. There is no evidence that racism, if it really was a significant problem, has decreased at all, but plenty of evidence of an increase in bitterness amongst those who opposed the gesture and division between that group and those who saw such opposition as proof of racism.
Those who booed the gesture or otherwise questioned it were met with an immediate vituperative swipe from the woke establishment. Fans who simply wanted to support their team free from progressive hectoring, or those who were troubled by the gesture’s association with the discredited Marxist organisation Black Lives Matter, were condemned as ‘part of the problem’ by a certain high-profile commentator. Some even faced legal consequences – Toby Young’s Free Speech Union had to defend one fan whose season ticket was cancelled after he booed knee-taking at his club and was snitched on by his ‘fellow’ supporters. Matt Le Tissier was shown the door at Sky after questioning its unequivocal support of BLM.
Dissenters on or beside the pitch were few and far between. Wilfried Zaha, a black player at Crystal Palace, labelled the gesture ‘degrading’ and opted out. Chelsea’s white defender Marcos Alonso chose instead to stand and point to the anti-racism badge on his shirt sleeve. Scotland boss Steve Clarke was clearly ambivalent on the issue. But that was about it. How many others harboured doubts but were cowed into acquiescence we’ll never know.
And that is what was most egregious about the knee-taking saga. It not only marked the end of an era when sport was generally considered an inappropriate arena for political statements but also signalled a chilling transition in society’s attitude to protest. Before, it was voluntary and choosing not to involve oneself was perfectly acceptable: now, in a distinctly Maoist fashion, non-participation or questioning the aims, nature or efficacy of a particular campaign can see you branded as suspect, or even as racist.
The Premier League captains’ decision is a welcome sign that sanity might be returning and the powers that be are finally acknowledging that the gesture was futile and divisive. It served only to weaken the already loosening bonds between fans and their clubs, and placed an intolerable burden on players who may have felt compelled to comply rather than jeopardise their careers. There is no evidence it did anything to combat racism, and it was fundamentally un-British to boot.
Good riddance. Over to you, Gareth.