England and Italy perform a pre-match ritual (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Artillery Row


England footballers don’t own the meaning of their pre-match gesture

Hundreds of protestors kept up their insistent chant: “Take a knee, take a knee, take a knee!”

The heavily outnumbered police officers exchanged glances with each other, unsure how to respond. Bemused, possibly intimidated. Then a group of them acquiesced and raucous applause echoed down Whitehall as they dropped down on one knee.

Not that it did them much good. Shortly afterwards they were not spared the hail of bottles, cans and other missiles that would leave dozens of their colleagues injured in the ensuing hours and days during a series of what the BBC described as “largely peaceful” demonstrations.

The “take a knee” people went on repeatedly to deface the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square and daubed graffiti on the Cenotaph too. One of their number tried to set alight a Union Flag on that memorial to the supreme sacrifices made by members of Her Majesty’s Armed Services.

That was last summer. Taking a knee briefly became all the rage among Labour MPs. A large group of them was photographed doing it in front of Parliament. Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner did so from inside the Great Palace itself.

Premier League footballers decided that the best way to show their own abhorrence of racism was by adopting the same fashionable gesture. What fans made of it was unclear as they weren’t consulted and games were being played in empty stadiums anyway. But Comcast, the giant US media conglomerate that owns Sky Sports and thus the television rights to most Premier League action, seemed pleased about the importation of the gesture from America. It got its presenters to wear BLM badges. Players wore BLM slogans on their shirts.

Knee-taking is about the former American football player Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the anthem of their own nation

As soon as limited crowds returned the booing started. At Millwall, at Colchester, even at Cambridge. And then at greater volume during England’s tournament warm-up games in Middlesbrough. The England camp expressed bemusement and hurt, noting that the players were performing knee-taking just as a protest against racism and other discrimination and claiming that it had nothing to do with the political organisation BLM.

This was the only interpretation permitted to be aired on TV sports broadcasts. For Gary Lineker and co, booing knee-taking amounted to “shithousery” and racism. Before Sunday’s final Lineker claimed those disapproving amounted to “a very small minority”, which is not what the opinion polling shows.

And now the wrath of English footballer entitlement has been unleashed upon the most senior politician to have publicly disapproved of knee-taking. In an interview with GB news, Home Secretary Priti Patel, a woman of Ugandan Asian heritage, dismissed it as “gesture politics” and reminded viewers of the appalling behaviour towards the police of some of its early advocates.

According to England squad member Tyrone Mings that renders her a secret approver of racism, including that racism emanating from troll accounts on social media after the team’s failure in the penalty shoot-out on Sunday. “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” he tweeted.

To many of us knee-taking is also about those disgusting attacks on our most important monuments

Mings generally seems an impressive young man and played well in the tournament. But his message here is doubly distasteful. First off, it is an ad hominem attack on someone who is herself from an ethnic minority background and who has experienced racism. Rather than acknowledging her right to a differing perspective, it disputes her good faith. 

Secondly it displays an epic arrogance and lack of imagination because it is based on the notion that England footballers entirely own the meaning of the gesture and that onlookers have no agency in interpreting it. This is Humpty Dumpty thinking (“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean”).

But knee-taking is about the former American football player Colin Kaepernick and others refusing to stand for the anthem of their own nation, a nation they define as systematically racist. To many of us it is also about those disgusting attacks on our most important monuments. To others it is tied up with critical race theory and the idea of “whiteness” being a social pathology.

It has also clearly set back race relations in this country, a country described by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, who is of Nigerian heritage, as the best in the world in which to grow up black.

If only England’s professional footballers had had the imagination to come up with their own unifying anti-racism gesture then these debacles could have been avoided. Instead their Instagram accounts pay visual homage to the rancid ID politics of another country. And they expect nothing but adulation in return.

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