Thierry Henry has announced that he will step away from social media until he believes racist abuse is being properly combated. Wilfried Zaha has stopped taking the knee because, “whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse." In both cases, we can see the impact of failures from across football and the media to properly address racism and go beyond initial gestures.
It is true that players had uniformly taken the knee for months, in a gesture of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But that does not seem to have resulted in any wider, meaningful education of the public or those involved in the sport. The Premier League announced their No Room For Racism Action Plan that would see it “work with fans, the FA, EFL, PFA, Kick It Out and the police to tackle racism on and off the pitch, promoting equality, diversity and inclusion across all areas of football.”
But this seems to have been delivered through its Premier League Primary Stars programme, and whilst embedding principles of diversity and equality in the youth is essential work for long-term change, it doesn’t actually tackle the live issue of adults who are abusing players. What is also needed is an effective education project for adults.
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Additionally, it seems counterproductive to be working alongside the police when the entire movement of Black Lives Matter is centred on police brutality towards black people. When our own police have questions to answer towards the disproportionate targeting of BAME people within the criminal justice system, this betrays a tone-deafness to the issues at hand.
In some respects, one can understand the reticence of players to lead the battle against racism, and also the reluctance of clubs or the Premier League to start a huge campaign. We only have to look at what happened over the course of March when Meghan Markle suggested she had experienced racism after joining the Royal Family. Significant sections of the press reacted with undisguised fury that she had dared to mention the R word.
For footballers, it does not even have to be about race for them to end up being pilloried. Raheem Sterling is regularly traduced for the crime of existing, and has previously been hauled up for the perceived sin of buying his mum a house. Marcus Rashford has been the only meaningful opposition to the Conservative government in the pursuit of feeding hungry children, and one only needs to look at his social media mentions to see the utterly vituperative attitude on display towards him.
There was an opportunity for the Premier League to perform lasting civic education. Clubs are meant to be there for their communities, and while they are not there to tell people what to think, they do have a duty to improve the lives of those in their local area, if they want to use the reflected authenticity that comes from fans attending matches. Fighting racism is such a chance.
Instead, it seems some clubs wanted the cachet of an easy win of taking the knee. It’s one gesture, over briefly. It requires no investment or moral reflection. The grunt work of explaining why it is necessary has been passed over to players. They might be the driving force behind the movement but they should not be made to justify their own self-evident humanity.
Look at the frustration of Zaha and the almost deliberate misreading of what he said. Zaha said taking the knee felt “degrading” and has now decided to opt out of the gesture. It is easy to understand why Zaha feels that the moment has passed and this is now quickly appearing to be a shallow movement. His comments that taking the knee felt “degrading” was a sign of his own ignorance on the history of the gesture, an ignorance that the Premier League could have addressed when making the decision to make kneeling a feature of pre-match activities for the season.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Colin Kaepernick degraded himself when he chose to kneel in 2016, the act that kicked off the very gesture we are discussing today. Yes, taking the knee is not a useful way to prove that one deserves respect, but it is a kickstart to a discussion that has yet to take place. When he says he should not have to go through this to prove he deserves better treatment, it is obvious that it has now become a corporate figleaf to celebrate the nebulous concept of diversity, which invites more work. Work that might bring up uncomfortable truths about football’s shortcomings and society’s dangers. After months of taking the knee he still receives racist abuse. So does almost every black footballer, so what’s the point?
The commitment to the movement of taking a knee is clearly only felt at a surface level. As soon as Millwall fans got the opportunity to boo the protest against racism, the club folded and players decided to hold hands instead. Kumbaya is not going to change the abuse players face. Zaha’s frustration, Millwall and QPR abandoning the kneeling, all had different reasons for the cessation and yet each of them have been taken as a victory against Woke Culture. There was an opportunity to build on the movement and explain what it meant, and to constructively challenge bigotry, but instead all that was offered was a vacuum for reactionaries to occupy, celebrate, goad and gloat.
This is what appears to have caused Henry to absent himself from social media in protest. He states he will not return until there is accountability from social media companies on the abuse that is allowed to run rampant. This is a tactic that has been tried many times, almost always unsuccessfully. Attempts to boycott social media have largely failed because the demands have failed to tap into the issue at hand.
On Twitter, it is far easier to be banned for copyright breach or general swearing than it is for racially abusing someone. It’s easier to be banned for posting a clip of Wilfried Zaha scoring a goal than it is for racially abusing him.
One way that this could be tackled is to overhaul Kick It Out. The pittance it receives in funding necessarily limits the scope of its interventions and effectiveness, something that now feels almost deliberate. What better way to maintain the veneer of respectability by establishing an anti-racist body and then refusing to give it the tools to operate properly. Clubs could pay a percentage of profits or turnover into the scheme, or the FA or Premier League could divert a significant amount of their corporate jolly expenditure towards doing something its players - the real drivers of profit - actually want and need. Kick It Out should also have the credibility, expertise and permission to investigate clubs and the league itself over matters of racism and discrimination.
There is a reckoning in society to have an open discussion about the stain of racism, but it is one that will not be over in a season, and it will not be limited to football. The people who need to engage properly with this are the ones who hold much of the power and as much of the apathy. Henry’s frustration is understandable, and his boycott is in many ways admirable, but unless there is further, concerted and orchestrated resistance from those within football and the fans who suffer from similar abuse, those in positions of power will have the ability to ignore it as usual.
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