It’s hard to argue that English football is chronically racist. Unlike in many boardrooms up and down Britain, there are no all-white teams in the Premier League. The number of black players has doubled since the Premier League started twenty years ago.
Yet instead of letting the players – black and white – do the talking on the pitch, last night’s long-awaited Premier League restart was turned into a sanctimonious display of moralising. Players took the knee before kick off and spouted platitudes before and after the games.
Confusingly, for the fair-weather fan who can’t remember which player is which, every footballer’s name was replaced on the back of their shirts with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan. ‘It shows we're going in the right direction. Little by little we're seeing change. It was natural, it was organic,’ said Raheem Sterling, the star Man City player, of the decision to bend down before kick off. Really?
These footballers are forgetting something obvious but important about why fans tune in: they pay to be entertained, not preached at. Put simply, football fans don’t really care who you are or where you’re from, they care whether you can kick a ball and score a goal.
What’s also troubling about last night’s virtue signalling is that it lets the Premier League off the hook for things it can do something about. Man City is owned by Sheikh Mansour, deputy leader of the UAE, a country that really does treat Asian labourers like slaves. How does players taking the knee help them? If Raheem Sterling, who earns £15 million a year, really had a strong sense of justice, he might want to consider the working conditions of the Bidoon — the under-class foreign migrants who struggle in the UAE without human rights or legal protections.
And how does the Pride banner on display in City’s ground last night help those unfortunate souls who find themselves banged up in an Abu Dhabi's prisons for being gay?
If Premier League players want to speak out about perceived injustices, will they stay silent on the millions of Muslims incarcerated in concentration camps in China? If they do find the courage to talk, it’s unlikely their clubs will be willing to stick by them. When Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil had the audacity to tweet something criticising China for its treatment of Uighur Muslims, Arsenal’s next game was pulled from Chinese TV. How did Arsenal respond? In a situation which might have hit the Premier League where it hurt – in the pocket – the club sat on the fence. Saying it ‘is always apolitical’, Arsenal said it ‘must make it clear that these are Mesut's personal views’. So much for solidarity.
While last night’s display before kick off may have signalled good intentions, wouldn’t it be better for clubs and players to do more than offer those watching easy stunts? The vast majority of football fans are disgusted by racism. And thankfully, racism – which was once a real problem on the terraces – has all but vanished from the English game. This isn’t to pretend it doesn’t still exist: there will always be mindless idiots at football games, just as there will be at any other gathering of tens of thousands of people. But racism is not the problem in football that it was once was.
Players might feel good about ‘taking the knee’, but wouldn’t it be better for them to get to their feet and show what they can do with a football? After all, it’s what fans are paying their money for. When Sterling was racially abused during England’s game against Montenegro last year, he responded by scoring. It was the ‘best way to silence the haters’, he tweeted afterwards. He’s right. So what’s changed?