An extract from the new book, “Red Card to Racism”.
“I am not going to get up to show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.”
– Colin Kaepernick, American football quarterback
Since August 2016, some American athletes have protested against police brutality and racism by “taking the knee.” “I am not going to get up to show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” the San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The gesture had a polarising effect in the US, with some critics saying it was disrespectful to American soldiers and the American flag. Many American athletes would follow his lead in the weeks and months that followed, sparking a huge reaction.
Kaepernick sat and later knelt during the anthem and repeated the action on 24 September 2017. The NFL protests became more widespread when over 200 players sat or knelt in response to President Trump’s expletive-filled rant calling for owners to “fire” the protesting players. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son-of-a-b**** off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.” The NFL approved a policy that required all athletes to stand during the national anthem in May 2018.
Kaepernick became a free agent at the end of that season and remained without a team despite being seen as one of the finest quarterbacks in the sport. He took legal action against the NFL for colluding to keep him out of the league. A confidential settlement was reached in February 2019. The player effectively gave up his career to fight for what he believes in. His gesture became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
BLM: Black Lives Matter
The Premier League restarted with all top-flight footballers making a powerful statement by taking the knee as the matches were about to start, while Black Lives Matter replaced player names on the back of shirts for the first 12 matches of the restart. The players’ solidarity had a global audience and became one of sport’s most powerful images.
Liverpool player, Trent Alexander-Arnold vowed to help push through cultural change and use his position to show the next generation they can achieve all of their dreams. The right-back takes an interest in social affairs and was involved in the #PlayersTogether initiative during the UK Covid-19 lockdowns aiming to raise funds for NHS charities. At Goodison Park, he also wore a pair of boots with the motif Black Lives Matter. In an interview with digital magazine The Journal, Alexander-Arnold spoke about racism and why he believes the treatment of black people has been wrong “for centuries.”
“When black lives do matter as much as everyone else’s, then all lives will matter, but that’s not the case now and it hasn’t been the case for centuries. We have to push for change. It’s been too wrong for too long. When you’re able to reach so many people, especially young kids, you have to make sure that you can help them feel like anything is possible and help them grow up to have equal opportunities. They shouldn’t feel different to others and be denied the same chances in life because of their skin colour. They shouldn’t feel different because of where they’re from or their background. For me, education is so important to all of this, because that’s where a lot of issues stem from. No one is born racist and comes into this world thinking that you deserve certain privileges. You get taught that.
“All of us have to work to undo that. I hope [people] are absorbing the messages we are putting out there individually and through #PlayersTogether. I hope kids can see how much stronger we are when we care for each other and are committed to the greater good.”
Trent auctioned his Black Lives Matter-branded boots and donated the proceeds to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “Do your talking on the pitch. I’ve always loved that sentiment. But now we need to speak up in other ways as well,” Trent said in a statement. “Tonight, my boots will carry the message Black Lives Matter. It can no longer just be our feet where we express ourselves. We have to use our profile and platform.”
In 2020, the death of George Floyd while in police custody in the USA sparked worldwide action and protests, and players, staff and officials have offered their support. The movement was criticised in some quarters and a “White Lives Matter” message was flown over the Etihad Stadium during a City–Burnley game on 22 June, 2020, evoking considerable outrage from Burnley.
And a handful of Chelsea fans reportedly held an anti-Black Lives Matter protest outside Stamford Bridge, calling on the club to stop players “taking the knee” before matches. One fan, who appeared to be leading the protest, sang, “Roman Abramovich, we won’t take a knee.” The same fan opened the protest with a “message” for the club’s owner, claiming the Black Lives Matter movement was racist! “We’re here today to send a message to Roman Abramovich,” the Chelsea fan said. “Roman Abramovich, we won’t take the knee. We don’t want our players to take the knee. You came here from Russia, you broke away from communism. The previous government wouldn’t let you build an extension to this club. The government we have in now, they’re fighting for Brexit, we want Brexit and we want you to show us you’re not part of the globalist oligarchy. Black Lives Matter is a racist organisation that is Marxist and is here to take our statues down and take everything down that we love in this country. We believe all lives matter. So, the message to Roman Abramovich is do not let our players or do not force our players to take the knee. We don’t want our players to be forced to take the knee. Black Lives Matter is racist – all lives matter! Football has been taken over by globalism.”
Rio Ferdinand joined a Black Lives Matter protest in London with his family, wife Kate and his three young children Lorenz, Tate and Tia. He posted a string of Instagram photos of the five of them among the crowd, wearing masks to protect themselves during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In the accompanying text, Ferdinand wrote: “Taking my family to Parliament Square today to be a part of the protest was very emotional. The importance of supporting such a cause cannot be underestimated. Educating the next generation is an absolute must. For our children to have been a part of such an important protest is something that I’m sure will have a lasting effect on them.” At the end of his message, he added the hashtags “#blm”, “#blacklivesmatter” and “#protest”.
Adding the pictures to her Instagram too, Kate Ferdinand described the protest as “a moving and overwhelming experience. Honestly, we were cautious about going [and] taking the children, but we are so glad we made the decision to go, it’s something we will all remember for the rest of our lives. It felt so good to be part of the movement. Our kids are the future, for us it’s so important for them to understand what is happening in the world and be part of the change, we need to continue to educate ourselves and the younger generation. Taking one knee with thousands of protesters [and] having a minute’s silence is a moment that will stay with me for a very long time. We stand united.”
However, Black Lives Matter UK is seen as a highly-charged political organisation by some – the campaign has called for a cut in money to law enforcement to create a “people’s budget.” The UK arm of the group has also said it wants to defund the police completely, abolish capitalism and has pledged support for Palestine amid Israel’s controversial plans to annex the West Bank. Black Lives Matter UK is the semi-official British offshoot of its American counterpart and has been the face of the UK’s protests over George Floyd’s death and racial equality. Some of the many people who have donated millions to their cause are unaware of many of the group’s more extreme aims. The UK branch, like the American arm of the movement, has a number of far-Left aims listed on its website; including the Marxist “commitment to dismantle capitalism.”
Matt Le Tissier agreed to wear the badge because he supported the cause but pointed out the organisation did not have his backing. “I just don’t agree with some of the points of that movement – specifically the defunding of the police and the anti-capitalist points are things I do not agree with. They are the two main points for me. I am quite happy for them to have their point of view, but that is mine and that is where I sit. I think a lot of people in the country would agree with me. I will still wear the badge because I do, of course, believe black lives matter. It’s a simple thing. I agree with the cause but there are parts of the organisation that I just cannot support.”
The Premier League recognised “the importance of the message that black lives matter” but made clear that it “does not endorse any political organisation or movement, nor support any group that calls for violence or condones illegal activity.” The Premier League have not provided any funding to BLM UK and chief executive Richard Masters told MPs that his organisation remains apolitical. Appearing before a select committee of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Masters made a distinction between moral and political causes, although this position was criticised by Sunderland MP Julie Elliott, who accused him of “opening a can of worms.”
Patrice Evra, Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville had all ditched their Black Lives Matter badges during Sky’s coverage of Manchester United’s win over Brighton. The decision came just hours after Le Tissier, another of the channel’s pundits, made it clear he was asked by bosses to wear the Black Lives Matter badge, but stressed he “could not support” the cause’s anti-police and anti-capitalist aims. Former Wolves midfielder Karl Henry had also slammed the organisation on Twitter. Crystal Palace became the first Premier League club to publicly distance themselves from the Black Lives Matter UK movement. Palace insisted they do back the “ethos” of the cause, and issued a statement drawing a definitive line between football’s adoption of the anti-discrimination message and the wider demands of the movement. In a statement, Palace said: “As people will have seen from our first home game, we have placed banners over our seated areas at Selhurst Park that read: Black Lives Matter. We stand proudly alongside members of the BAME community, our players and employees, and behind the ideals and ethos of “black lives matter.” However, we would like to make clear that we do not endorse any pressure group or body that carries the same term in its name, and we strongly believe that organisations should not use this important force for change and positivity to push their own political agendas. We want to be part of a world that is fair, inclusive and open to all. As an organisation, we recognise that we need to do more, and we will do more to contribute towards this goal.”
Emile Heskey was the only pundit who remained wearing his Black Lives Matter badge for Premier League coverage after the BBC banned pundits and guests from wearing them. Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Micah Richards decided not to display any message. Sky allowed pundits to make their own decisions, but only Heskey opted to display the message. Fellow pundit Graeme Souness was also without the badge. Soccer Saturday host Jeff Stelling along with experts Clinton Morrison, Paul Merson and Le Tissier chose to support anti-racism charity Kick It Out instead. However, BT Sport’s guests. Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Savage and Steve Sidwell joined Jake Humphrey for the programme and supported the BLM movement by wearing a badge.
The major question was how and when the Black Lives Matter momentum would manifest itself into effecting real change.
Red Card to Racism by Harry Harris is now on sale – you can get your copy from Amazon here.