Taking the knee against racism at Euro 2020 seems a better reflection of our national values than our national anthem: a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy.
England played Scotland on Friday in their second group game of the Euro 2020 football tournament. As they have in recent games, the England players joined by their Scottish counterparts agreed to take the knee before kick-off in a symbolic gesture against racism. As in recent games, this gesture was booed by a small number of racists.
There are substantive critiques of the knee protest. Gestures matter, but this one has been co-opted to fit within a framework with which the football authorities and sponsors are comfortable. While it has started important conversations it hasn’t so far led to substantive actions to address racism in football or beyond. However, protests against this protest against racism, have spread as it has been made a culture war issue.
Taking the knee has always been a bit of an awkward import into UK sport. Colin Kaepernick’s iconic protest of taking the knee before American football games worked, because he objected to being required to glorifying a nation steeped in racism. We don’t do the bizarre performative patriotism of insisting on the national anthem at every sporting event. Maybe we would if we had a decent one.
Many people feel more affinity to the symbolism of taking a knee for racial and social justice, than they do for our national anthem: God save our gracious queen etc. It says nothing about our people or the values millions of Brits identify with. As an atheist, I don’t want or need to beseech any deity’s help with my head of state’s health or nation’s sporting prowess. As a humanist I don’t want someone to “reign over us” As a secularist, I’m not sure I want a god to “confound their politics”, separation of church and state, and all that.
I find the excessively performative prayer by players, equally bizarre and more than a bit silly, though at least I can see a game in the pub without social pressure to participate in this. In either case, thanking god for a tap-in or making our national anthem a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy, I couldn’t imagine the effrontery of booing it. I’d like a new national anthem, but am not going to start a bloody culture war over it. I wouldn’t expect anyone to care if I boycotted the national team over it.
We like to pretend we’re a meritocracy. But celebrity, achieved through sporting success or media acumen, rare as it is, is one of the very few routes that provide people from ethnic minority or working-class backgrounds with a significant platform to speak out on social issues. There are certainly forms of neutrality and non-partisanship that institutions like football clubs would be wise to observe. But politics has always been interwoven with sport and football in particular. Calls to ‘keep politics out of football’ are normally calls to keep quiet about issues that people don’t like or are uncomfortable with. This is normally just a form of conservative ‘cancel culture’. There are significant issues with racism within British sport, particularly sport media and business, and any expectation that players should stay silent about this is political.
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Photo information: Toddler Playing Soccer, Lukas