This weekend, as has become completely normal over the space of the past few months, the players of Millwall and Derby County, prior to kickoff in their Sky Bet Championship game, took a knee in the middle of the field, to protest racism.
And the crowd, of just 2,000 supporters, booed them. The sporting media, and indeed the media in general, isn’t happy. Here’s the BBC:
Millwall say they are “dismayed and saddened” after some of their fans booed players taking a knee at the start of Saturday’s game against Derby.
The Den was able to host 2,000 home fans for the first time this season after the second national lockdown was lifted.
However, the return of spectators was overshadowed by the pre-match incident.
The Football Association and anti-discrimination body Kick It Out have also condemned the booing.
“Millwall Football Club was dismayed and saddened by events which marred Saturday’s game against Derby County at the Den,” said the club in a statement.
“The club has worked tirelessly in recent months to prepare for the return of supporters and what should have been a positive and exciting occasion was completely overshadowed, much to the immense disappointment and upset of those who have contributed to those efforts.
And closer to home, here’s Virgin Media’s Gavan Reilly, commenting on footage of the incident:
Didn’t realise “everybody hates us, we don’t care” was actually an aspirational statement. Imagine being this pig-ignorant. https://t.co/LKzC8HbnMN
— Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) December 5, 2020
Why did the Millwall fans boo? Nobody knows. And it doesn’t really matter, in truth. Whatever their reasons for booing might be, the boos were the correct response.
Sportspeople kneeling before a game does not do a single thing to deter, discourage, or otherwise stop racism. Somebody who is racist is not likely to observe a footballer kneeling, and, in that moment, realise the error of their ways. Nowhere in the world will you find someone who will honestly say that they believed in white supremacism until they tuned into Millwall versus Derby County on Sky Sports, and that the sight of players kneeling really made them think. The whole point of kneeling, at least in practice, is to demonstrate ideological compliance, not genuine feeling. It is very deliberately a quasi-religious demonstration, designed to evoke the imagery of subservience and submission. At least the black power symbol – standing with one fist raised – sends a message of liberation and strength.
What’s more, it’s an explicitly political symbol.
When you take the knee before a game, you are not just saying “I oppose racism”. You are also saying “I believe our society is a racist one”.
After all, what are you protesting?
If people do not believe that the society that they live in is a deeply racist one, then they are within their rights to speak up and say so. But since they’ll never be given a microphone on Sky Sports, what other way do they have to make their own voice of opposition heard, but to loudly boo? If taking the knee is an act of speech, then booing that act is an act of speech, too, and it’s entitled to just as much respect, and legitimacy. Fans can boo if they want.
And they should boo.
Because the message that is being sent – very deliberately – by those players taking the knee is that society at large is deeply racist. That is both insulting, and objectively inaccurate.
But fans should not simply boo because the message is insulting and inaccurate. They should boo because the message is insulting, inaccurate, and compliance with it is so rigidly enforced by a media with no mandate to enforce it.
Earlier this year, Formula One racing drivers who chose not to kneel before races were persistently pestered by journalists with questions about why they were “refusing” to take the knee. In the end, the pressure from the media was so great that Formula One actually had them all make a video – sort of a hostage tape – where they all explained that they oppose racism. This is now broadcast, every single weekend, before every single race. But what business is it of anyone else’s if a driver, or a footballer, or a tennis player, chooses not to kneel? Perhaps they feel that their society is not actually very racist, and they do not want to take part in a display intended to say that it is.
That is their right, after all. But how many footballers, or other sportsmen, feel brave enough to take that stand today? And how many of them are kneeling out of fear, rather than conviction?
If you’re kneeling because you genuinely believe that racism is real, and want to protest it, more power to you. But it’s very hard to shake the feeling that a great many people are kneeling before games because a refusal to kneel would have them branded, by both the media, and the social media mob, as suspected racists. And so down they go, as required, and partake in their symbol of submission.
When an act becomes de-facto compulsory, it is no longer a protest. The people protesting at the weekend were not the players kneeling in the middle of the pitch – they were simply complying. The people protesting were those in the stands, booing.
That’s a protest. Not the nonsense in the middle of the pitch.