This is why they kneel.
If you needed any further demonstration of how deeply embedded racism is in the fabric of football it came last night during the Champions League when both sets of players walked off the pitch and the match between PSG and Istanbul Basaksehir was abandoned following an alleged racist comment.
Not from a fan. Not from a player. From a match official. One of the people attending the game purely to ensure fair play and the protection of players. This is why the players – and players of all backgrounds and ethnicities - kneel. Because even in a Champions League match, on the most visible stage of all, black players are vulnerable to comments about their skin colour. From a match official.
As Demba Ba put it in response to the alleged comment: "You never say ‘this white guy’, you say ‘this guy’, so why when you mention … listen to me… so why when you mention a black guy [do] you have to say ‘this black guy’?”
It is almost the end of 2020 and players are having to walk off the pitch in disgust following comments made by a fourth official. It is almost the end of 2020 and we are apparently happy to entertain serious discussions around whether Millwall fans booing players taking the knee is not an act of racism but in fact a critical take on Marxism.
Ilias Chair (R) of Queens Park Rangers celebrates scoring the 1st goal with Bright Osayi-Samuel of Queens Park Rangers
Image credit: Getty Images
Yes, they applauded when a compromise was found for players to link arms ahead of last night’s match against QPR. But the kneel and raised fist celebration of QPR’s Ilias Chair and Bright Osayi-Samuel was telling. So too was the response of Millwall’s own Mahlon Romeo at the weekend. Strangely, Marxism didn’t factor into his thinking.
"I'm almost lost for words," he said. "I don't know how they thought that would make me feel. I don't know what they thought taking a knee stood for. But I think I've explained it simply enough. I feel really low - probably the lowest I've felt in my time at this club.
"When fans are booing a peaceful gesture to highlight racism, it naturally makes you ask yourself 'why am I putting myself through this?'. I'm sure not all Millwall fans share the same opinion - it's a small collection. But if we're being realistic it made me feel very small and it made me feel personally disrespected."
This is how deeply toxic this work environment has become for players, and particularly black players.
The Daily Mirror’s Darren Lewis is an essential voice in this debate. Only this weekend, he said that direct action must follow after Millwall fans booed the players taking the knee before their match against Derby, booed an endorsement of the sentiment that Black Lives Matter and a simple and peaceful protest to demand equality.
"Do young black men have to keep coming out, do young fathers have to keep sending their sons into work knowing they're going to get racially abused week after week? No," he said on Sky Sports. "All football does is condemn. In other industries people say 'we're on strike'. They strike over pay, they strike over conditions. They take actions into their own hands. In this sport, all we do is talk time and time again. People are tired of it.
"The players have to take that power and show the game that unless it does something, as other industries have found themselves in similar positions, they will not play."
Three days later - *three days* - and more of those young black men had to leave the field of play in Paris following comments from a fourth official.
The infuriating, and tragic, thing is that this should not be on the players. It fundamentally should not be the responsibility of the victims of racism to have to make the argument for their own protection, the argument for upholding their own human rights.
But we all know that the game’s governing bodies are woefully ill-equipped to deal with these matters. They are not made up of people who represent the players on the pitch or know how to adequately represent their concerns either.
And by the way the media is not exempt from this. Representation in our industry remains largely woeful and even if the response to the recent Anton Ferdinand documentary seemed to be one of universal solidarity, the response at the time was certainly not.
Faced with governing bodies who equivocate in the face of explicit racism and hand out insulting fines, the players have taken matters into their own hands. Direct action will not come from UEFA, so in an absence of leadership from above, the players of PSG and Basaksehir have shown it themselves.
It is not their responsibility to do so. But we thank them wholeheartedly for it.
Keep kneeling. Keep walking off. Keep demanding the change that the rest of football is shamefully too slow to deliver for you.