Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
It’s a scene we’ve become familiar with as sport returns after the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Taking the knee, popularised in summer 2016 by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who knelt during the US national anthem in a protest against the US’ oppression of people of colour, has been done all over the country at protests and gatherings, not least at the start of all Premier League games. A powerful, unexpected and important moment which started when referee Michael Oliver blew the first whistle of ‘Project Restart’, Aston Villa and Sheffield United’s players and staff knelt, some with fists in the air, for eight seconds – for each minute that George Floyd was fatally restrained with a knee on his neck – as a further symbol of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This was in addition to wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ in lieu of their surnames on the backs of their shirts.
It was the first time the whole Premier League has come together on an issue like this; it isn’t unfamiliar to see a minute’s silence when there is something to remember or mourn. What seemed, though, like a positive movement – a powerful moment to inform and educate people of all ages globally of the issues that Black Lives Matter seeks to highlight – was tarnished at the end of the first weekend of Premier League football by Jack Hepple, 24, a Burnley fan who is believed to have organised for a plane to fly over the Etihad Stadium brandishing a banner which read ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’. Hepple has since lost his job, according to reports.
What this banner, combined with social media posts which propagate ‘White Lives Matter’ and the feeling that white people are being excluded from the sport, highlight is the need for this to be much more than just a fleeting moment or a social media trend.
On a national phone-in radio show after Manchester City beat Burnley 5-0, a discussion on the ‘White Lives Matter’ banner only went on to emphasise the need for education. Contributors said that sport and politics should not cross over. That it isn’t a footballer’s responsibility to do what politicians should do. That sport should be an escape. That Black Lives Matter is racist against white people.
Sport can’t be seen as a vacuum where the only thing we see is the sport and nothing else. I, for one, am delighted that players feel they can take the knee, that they can wear Black Lives Matter on their backs, and that – for the first time that I can remember – every single person involved with the Premier League is united behind one mission: to ensure that Black people and Black lives always matter. Indeed the Premier League themselves have stated that they “offered this backing as we wholly agree with the players’ single objective of eradicating racial prejudice wherever it exists”. What some fans, though, fail to recognise is that footballers are real people too.
I also fear that the Black Lives Matter movement seeping into the Premier League, or at least being permitted by the Premier League, is a ‘tickbox’ for those in charge of the sport. Too many occasions have slipped by where the FA, Premier League, UEFA and others have failed to be strict enough on players and fans when racism has reared its ugly head in the sport. Too often, it gets brushed off as football hooliganism. Bulgaria, for example, were fined £65,000 and given a two-year ‘behind-closed-doors’ order after England’s players were abused during a game in 2019. It doesn’t stop the problem, it ticks a box – ‘look, we punished them, what more can we do?’.
Racism absolutely has to be treated much more seriously in football and sport more widely. We can’t continue – both as fans and as those in charge – to turn a blind eye to the obvious racism we see in a sport we claim to love so much.
I’m a firm believer in the need for much stronger punishments for clubs who fail to take action on racism. Lifetime bans are a good start for fans, and if we can identify racists through lifetime bans there should also be financial repercussions or criminal charges brought against these people. The Crown Prosecution Service says that the maximum sentence for “insulting words or behaviour or displaying written material with intent/likely to stir up racial hatred” is 7 years at Crown Court (under section 18 of the Public Order Act 1986). So, why don’t we hear about these punishments? It is because, even if clubs issue lifetime bans, it is a hassle to actually go forward and prosecute these offenders.
The Premier League and football as a whole must do something about this. We can’t let racism continue to exist within our sport: harsher punishments for those who commit the crimes (and crime is how we should describe racism), greater fines and potential points deductions for the clubs who aren’t strict enough in handing out lifetime bans, and where necessary holding countries’ football associations to account where they are passively allowing racism to continue in football.
Cricketer Carlos Braithwaite put it better than I ever could: “Taking a knee […] or wearing a badge in isolation isn’t enough; it’s the reprogramming and reconfiguring of the mindset.” That starts by giving people lifetime bans, which Burnley insist will happen as a result of the ‘White Lives Matter’ banner, and providing those who commit racist acts with the education where necessary to hopefully change their views.