I often think that a healthy society is one in which “and” propositions are more common than those divided by “or”. To take an obvious British example, a society in which it is widely accepted that you can be a Remainer and a patriot, or a Leaver and intelligent, is stronger than one in which you can only be one or the other. I am proud that the United Kingdom is still an “and” society. But I worry that we are increasingly becoming a nation defined by “or”.
The debate over whether England’s footballers should continue to kneel before their matches – the symbolic protest against racism that has been adopted by elite sportsmen and women across the world – is a good example.
Like any symbol, from the flag of St George to the Labour rose, taking a knee means different things to different people. For many footballers and those on the left, it’s a source of hope. To some Conservative MPs, it represents an objectionable ideology. The Bassetlaw MP Brendan Clarke-Smith compared it to giving the Nazi salute. Ashfield’s Lee Anderson announced that he will not watch England’s games as long as they continue to kneel before matches, because doing so is “synonymous” with Black Lives Matter, “a Marxist organisation which wants to undermine our way of life”.
I have to be honest: I find “taking a knee” profoundly depressing. To me, it symbolises the endless ability of elite football to make rhetorical commitments to big and important changes without ever delivering on them. Arsenal Football Club’s players have knelt before every one of their games since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. In the same period of time, they have publicly distanced themselves from criticism of the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang to safeguard the club’s commercial interests in China, and they have continued to take money from the repressive governments of Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates, as evidenced by the slogans on their shirts.
Black Lives Matter? At Arsenal at least, the term comes with a formidable number of opt-outs and exemptions. My view of taking the knee is much closer to that of Wilfried Zaha, the Crystal Palace star, who has complained that the protest is “not even working”, and that people have almost forgotten why it is taking place. I feel depressed, too, at my own complicity. Despite my conviction that my football club is not only badly run but run by bad people, I go to watch Arsenal play whenever I can, and if my number on the season ticket waiting list ever comes up I will grab it with both hands.
It’s fashionable to talk about how football fans like me are powerless in the face of capricious owners, but I could, of course, find a lower-league club in north or east London to support instead. I choose to prioritise my emotional connection with Arsenal over my ethical objections to how the club conducts itself. Small wonder that I feel somewhat irritable when ethical questions arise. The knee both demonstrates the emptiness of football’s commitment to change and reminds me of my own, near-infinite capacity to forgive football’s transgressions. Yet if I were back at the Emirates Stadium, I wouldn’t boo players taking a knee. I’m not against heckling the ownership or an egregious corporate sponsor, but I would draw a line at this.
Why? It comes back to the difference between or and and. Black Lives Matter is a banner cynically adopted by organisations and it is a symbol that brings hope to many people. The knee epitomises football’s tendency to adopt superficial solutions that lack meaning and it represents the genuine commitment of many of Arsenal’s players to combating racism across the globe.
Though it makes me feel depressed, it is clearly a source of optimism for Marcus Rashford. And though the movement may have been adopted by some Marxists, it has also been enthusiastically embraced by many footballers who, as a cursory glance at Instagram would tell you, are not, on the whole, opposed to modern capitalism.
In that respect, the knee is like a nation’s flag. A flag is a symbol of unity and pride to most people, but it is also the rallying banner for nationalist extremists, for whom belonging is more about skin colour and creed than anything else.
If you choose to object to those connotations of the flag or national anthem by booing them, you do so in the full knowledge that you are engaging in a form of protest that many people find deeply unpleasant. It’s not as if we live in a country where we can’t make our feelings known by sending a tweet, posting on Facebook or writing a letter to a newspaper. Likewise, if I choose to protest Arsenal’s hypocrisy and lack of genuine progress by booing, I know that some of England’s players would experience it as disrespectful.
Gareth Southgate writes in the Players’ Tribune that his role as the England team’s leader gives him and his players a “responsibility” to speak about the issues that matter to them. Part of remaining an “and” society is that we recognise the different meanings that symbols carry for different people, and act accordingly – that we are considerate towards each other’s beliefs. If we cannot appreciate that the England team’s understanding of a symbol deserves as much respect as anyone else’s, we are in danger of becoming an “or” society.
The healing quality of international football is that when teams succeed, they inevitably do so as “and” propositions. Footballers who might be vilified when they play for their clubs can triumph when they come together. That is particularly the case with the present national team, who remain one of the most likeable England sides in my lifetime. And for that reason as much as any other, I desperately hope that, at this summer’s Euros, Southgate’s men will be able to bring football home.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?