Kneeling in Sports and Where We Go from Here
The UEFA European Championship returned this summer after being delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The quadrennial international competition featuring Europe’s best national teams has been held since 1960. With the return of the tournament came the much-anticipated return of fans to arenas. Yet, this return of fans brought with it a wave of racist demonstrations and online abuse towards black players.
Italy defeated England in the finals after a 1-1 tie was decided in penalty kicks, 3-2. For England, it was the first final of a major international tournament that they had been to since the 1966 World Cup, which they won. Italy made this year's finals after completely missing out on the 2018 World Cup, and featured a mix of a few experienced veterans with an outrageously talented group of up-and-coming stars.
The tournament sparked conversation around race and racial unity. For most of the year in major European soccer leagues, the players and referees would commence every game with a symbol of unity by taking a knee for 30 seconds in recognition of the continued fight for racial justice and equality. However, as the season wore on, players and commentators across the different leagues started questioning the efficacy of kneeling before games.
For some context, European soccer has had a very troubling history with racism. Some recent issues include English side Chelsea banning a fan for life after racially abusing Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford receiving years of online abuse and death threats, Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku getting monkey chants yelled at him in Italy after he scored a goal, and even a Champions League match being abandoned by both teams after one of the referees referred to a player using a racial slur.
Even this year’s Euro Championship final couldn’t escape online racial abuse. The three players for England who missed their penalty kicks in the final are all black, and they received thousands of abusive messages online. One of the players, Rashford, had a mural in Manchester vandalized the night after the game. Another, Bukayo Saka, is a 19-year old kid who had never taken a penalty in his senior career. When he missed his penalty kick in the finals, his Instagram comments were filled with people calling him a monkey. Plenty of questions were asked of the coach for England as to why he put so much pressure on him when he had other veteran players available to go ahead of him.
These instances are just a microcosm of the long, horrible history of racial abuse that people of color have experienced in sport. The response to Lukaku being racially abused in Italy was one of apathy and acceptance after both his own team and the opposing team released individual statements that indirectly defended the opposing fans’ discriminatory language.
As racial justice movements were taking place around the world after the death of George Floyd, some European soccer leagues thought it would be important to participate in voicing their support of Black Lives Matter, as teams sported BLM logos on their jerseys and hung banners in their respective stadiums to affirm this support.
While the teams themselves can not do anything substantial to fight against structural inequalities in society, they felt it was important to bring attention to the issue in the hopes that people would have meaningful conversations about it and try to find solutions through dialogue and through legislation. As time progressed, some players and media personalities voiced different opinions on the perceived effectiveness that these measures had on society.
The first player to make a statement about the efficacy of kneeling, logos on the jerseys, and banners in the stadiums was Wilfred Zaha, a 28-year old Ivorian who plays for Crystal Palace in the English Premier League. In a press release from March, Zaha said, “There is no right or wrong decision, but for me personally I feel kneeling has just become a part of the pre-match routine and at the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse."
Zaha said he respects the work being done by the league but says that not enough is being done outside of the sport to combat racism. Just last year, a 12-year old boy was arrested for racially abusing Zaha online.
Milwall, a second division English club that has one of the worst histories with their fans and racial abuse towards players, booed their players for taking a knee during the first game back that fans were allowed to attend during the season. The subsequent game, the team did not kneel at the beginning of the game, unlike the referees and their opponents, which won them applause from their fan base.
Zaha and many other players of color have tried to highlight that kneeling only does so much. They have said that the fight for racial justice is much more than PR-stunts to make a company or a team look good. Real change occurs through legislation and working to make communities and fan bases come together to fight against racism and prevent it from being passed down to another generation.
In a disappointing manner, the Millwall FC executives released a pathetic response to their fans booing the kneeling. Their players entirely gave up on the initiative the next time out. It is one thing to stop kneeling or question the validity of it in search for more comprehensive measures that can be taken to combat racial injustice. It is a completely different thing to stop kneeling at the behest of fans’ behavior.
Another interesting trend across European soccer has been the responses to these acts. Ondřej Kúdela of Czech-based Slavia Prague was suspended for 10 games after racially abusing a black player during a Europa League game earlier in the season. UEFA, the chief governing soccer authority in Europe, installed a 10-match minimum suspension for anyone who was found to be guilty of racist actions.
To contrast, Ajax’s Cameroonian goalkeeper Andre Onana was banned for one full calendar year after failing a drug test earlier in the season. He tested positive for having taken a diuretic, but claimed that he was feeling unwell and accidentally took a pill from his girlfriend to cleanse his body and did not know it was banned. The story was corroborated, but the UEFA governing board upheld his suspension. His suspension was reduced to nine months earlier in June.
The difference in these stories is one that many people know all too well. A mistake with a drug test, or even being caught with a very minor amount, leads to a much more significant and substantial suspension and punishment than someone who deliberately commits a racist act. We see the continued double standard for people of color with Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension from the Olympics due to testing positive for marijuana.
The conversations surrounding racial injustice should be centered on one question: what concrete, material things can we do to improve?
These answers lie in direct government legislation through the forms of reparations, ending qualified immunity, ending mandatory minimum sentencing, legalizing marijuana and expunging the records of minor offenders, affirmative action, and other social and structural equality measures amongst many other things. It also lies in substantial community-driven action and awareness that calls attention to unjust and oppressive systems and material ways that we can change them. They do not lie within symbolic gestures that create no real change other than the public perception of the participating group. While these things bring attention to the matter, they offer absolutely nothing in making real, actionable changes in the lives of people who need it most.