Written by Victoria Knowles, University of Sheffield
Originally used by NFL-player Colin Kaepernick in 2016, the ‘take a knee’ gesture was born in protest of the police brutality faced by African-Americans and gained further prominence during the resurgent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The England men’s national team first used the gesture in September 2020 and have kneeled before kick-off of every match they’ve played since, most prominently at the 2020 European Championships. The team progressed through the tournament well alongside support from the England fans but fast forward just a month later and the atmosphere is vastly different, with Black players being subjected to an avalanche of racist abuse on Twitter for missing penalties in the final against Italy. It’s no surprise then that recent media speculation turned towards whether Gareth Southgate’s team would kneel during the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar, a nation that also plays host to a range of human rights issues. For my Masters research, I explored how the UK mainstream media* discussed the England team and taking the knee during Euro 2020. Figure 1 compares the frequency of identified discourses across three monthly periods of newsprint coverage.
*Newsprint articles sourced from four selected newspapers
Figure 1: frequency (%) of categories within different periods of newspaper coverage
England footballers → champions of change?
Predominantly, the England team’s activism during Euro 2020 appeared well received by the media, as 66% of the selected coverage expressed a positive tone around them taking a knee. This positive response to the gesture was frequently discussed relative to the reception of football fans e.g. support during matches, but it was the theme of patriotism and English pride that emerged as central to the media conversation and dominated during the month that Euro 2020 was held. The England team were regarded as symbols of social change, receiving praise for using their voice and platform to speak out on racism in our society, despite the backlash from fans booing in the stands and politicians failing to condemn this. So, on the surface, the media tended to adopt a positive framing of the England team but, rather than commenting on the racial injustice that has been embedded in football for years, favoured commentary on the issues of racism and discrimination in broader English society. Given the input from politicians within the conversation, the importance of politics emerged here as the media’s priority as Euro 2020 progressed.
The (inevitable) political playing field
Negative public responses to the team’s campaign (e.g. match booing) were discussed less often but the climate of division caused by the gesture was heavily linked to political discourse, which began to dominate the conversation as the tournament progressed. The frequency in which politics were discussed increased from 15% (pre-Euros) to 34% (post-Euros). Notably, articles often alluded to the inevitably of this gesture being associated with politics. When the ‘take a knee’ gesture was born from Kaepernick’s NFL national anthem protest, he endured an avalanche of opposition from American media for “treading on the flag” and forcing his political views into sport (Doehler, 2021). It is no surprise then that the England team faced similar opposition for seemingly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and making political statements that some fans disagreed with (Ipsos MORI, 2021). Politics are embedded within our societal structures and dynamics; it is, after all, governments who have the power to address social issues such as racism and bring about meaningful change. In fact, following Euro 2020, the UK government built upon legislation to extend football banning orders to those who abuse footballers online.
In this sense, the relationship between athlete protests and politics is key for working towards tangible social impact; the criticism faced by athletes for engaging with political issues, therefore, is ironic. Are the England team really ‘forcing’ political battles into football when racial injustice has been embedded within the sport since the beginning? Arguably, it is rather difficult to ‘stick to football’ when, for example, Black England players are consistently subjected to racial abuse on Twitter. So, taking a knee is inherently a political gesture; there is an extensive history of athletes protesting for racial equality in their sports that have been consistently linked to politics – and so they should. It is when the motivations of these athletes are overshadowed by the political opinions of fans, and often the media, that this association can become problematic. When mainstream media focuses on Priti Patel labelling taking the knee as ‘gesture politics’, for example, it attaches importance to this political narrative aimed at criticising athletes who engage with social issues such as racism and discrimination.
Let’s talk about racism in English football
Across the media articles I analysed, racial discourse linked to the motivations of England footballers taking the knee were talked about less frequently as Euro 2020 progressed, while debate around the gesture’s political character dominated the coverage (see Figure 1). The constant reference to politics and politicians contributes to the turbulent environment surrounding race and football conversations, and the true purpose becomes lost. In fact, discourse surrounding the take a knee gesture and the position of activism in English football represented very little of the media conversation here. As summarised by sociologist Paul Campbell, the gesture does represent a “pivotal moment for race relations in English football” (Campbell, 2021), but meaningful change can only be achieved if we first emphasise the responsibility of governing bodies, football clubs, players and relevant media outlets. In short, the England team taking the knee was a good start but this isn’t enough, and the tentative approach of British media in praising the gesture but being reluctant to discuss the necessity of it is part of the problem. Take the sample of newsprint articles I analysed – discussions specifically around racial injustice in English football made up only 5% of the entire conversation. Interestingly, American media appeared to have a similar approach to coverage of Colin Kaepernick’s gesture in 2016 (Doehler, 2021). Negative framings of Kaepernick relied on patriotic ideologies and took precedence over other discussions around current race relations in America. Evidently, mainstream media contributes to a culture of silence in relation to the importance of athlete activism; this includes the role of the FA and the responsibility of England players to use their platform to raise awareness for such an important social issue.
Institutions in positions of power, particularly governing bodies such as the FA, were largely absent from the media coverage, a trend continued through the current World Cup in Qatar. Gareth Southgate and the England team believe it is their responsibility to stand for inclusivity and speak out about ‘non-football issues’. FIFA, on the other hand, believes that the World Cup should be separate from ‘ideological or political battles’ and that teams should focus on football. These institutions need to address the structural dynamics in professional English football that facilitate racial inequalities; this includes the culture of silence, partially facilitated by mainstream media, surrounding engagement with these human rights issues. On a more positive final note, some of the ‘progressive’ sports journalists among us don’t shy away from discussing the intersection of social issues and football. A small selection of journalists during Euro 2020 put a more personal spin on their articles and supported England’s message of inclusivity; they felt seen and heard by an England team that were now playing for everyone, including racial minorities that have previously been subjected to the ugly side of ‘the beautiful game’.
Campbell, P. (2021) ‘Taking the knee in football: why this act of protest has always been political’, 16th June. Available at: https://theconversation.com/taking-the-knee-in-football-why-this-act-of-protest-has-always-been-political-162541 (Accessed: 9 November 2022)
Doehler, S. (2021) ‘Taking the star-spangled knee: the media framing of Colin Kaepernick’, Sport in society, pp. 1–22. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/17430437.2021.1970138
Ipsos MORI (2021) Ipsos MORI Euros 2020 Tournament. Available at: https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2021-06/Ipsos%20MORI%20Euros%202020%20polling_120621_PUBLIC.pdf (Accessed: 13 August 2021).