Opinion | Why English football needs the knee

The Premier League kicked off earlier this month. With the top tier of English football announcing that players will now only take the knee before select matches, and not every game this season, it is worth revisiting a question that is central to the debate over the powerful protest act: what did it achieve?

Players began to kneel for a few seconds before the opening whistle when games resumed after a pandemic-forced break in June 2020, inspired by Black Lives Matter protests in the United States following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The act of taking a knee soon became a common sight in stadiums across England, drawing cheers and boos alike.

Equally mixed are the views within the football community. When does the performance of an anti-racist ritual in sports amplify its activist politics – and when does it turn counterproductive and serve to neutralise the effect?

On the one hand are players like England-born Ivory Coast international Wilfred Zaha, who stopped taking the knee last year in the Premier League, where he plays for Crystal Palace. Zaha’s argument boiled down to a criticism that in the absence of meaningful changes in social conduct and values, the once-powerful gesture had been turned into a meaningless pre-match ritual. After all, while the Premier League has said it remains “resolutely committed to eradicate racial prejudice and to bring about an inclusive society”, it has done little to address deeper shortcomings. The league has no Black referee at the moment and only one Black manager: former French national Patrick Viera.

But on the other hand, many players, like Birmingham City captain Troy Deeney, believe that the practice of taking the knee must continue, even as they recognise that a symbolic act alone cannot undo racial injustice. In his recent autobiography, which I have been reading, Deeney referred to the view that the lack of concrete action to end racism is “evidence that taking the knee is not working and therefore we should abandon it”. Deeney counters that argument by pointing out that the Premier League – in which he played between 2015 and 2020 for Watford – offers players a major platform to direct the world’s attention to the problems of racial injustice. “Keep taking the knee until something changes,” he writes in his book, Redemption: My Story.

While I understand Zaha’s perspective, I agree with Deeney and am glad the Premier League is continuing with the practice of kneeling, even if only occasionally.

To be sure, the movement to take the knee has not transformed English football in the way many had hoped for, although it indicated how far the authorities were willing to go in their commitment to stand with players. The pre-game ritual has not changed the ugly reality of racism that frequently tarnishes the beautiful game. In 2021, Arsenal forward Eddie Nketiah was subjected to racist abuse on social media, prompting Gunners chief executive Vinai Venkatesham to describe online racism as football’s “biggest problem”. After missing a decisive kick in the Euro 2020 final penalty shoot-out against Italy, 19-year-old Bukayo Saka was scapegoated by irate fans on social media who flooded his Twitter timeline, and those of fellow Black players Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, with racist language and symbols.

But kneeling in protest is one significant way of addressing the tenacity of racism in football through an equally relentless performance of bodily resistance in the public view, provoking more conversations and, hopefully, eventual change.

You can have a powerful reminder against injustice in the form of a gesture while concurrently implementing the pragmatic demands of that act. As Viera, Zaha’s manager at Crystal Palace said on the day of his team’s season opener against Arsenal, players need to continue to take the knee – even if only before some games – because the fight against racism is a long one. By doing that, they would ensure that the spotlight remains on a problem that is deeply ingrained in football and society.

It is the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al-Ghadeer’s editorial stance.

By | James Yékú teaches courses on African cultural studies, popular culture, and digital cultures at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

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