On the opening day of this year’s season, I went to see Chelsea play Crystal Palace. The match programme featured an article on Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player. I remember watching him in the 1980s when he was racially abused by his own fans. Large sections of the crowd taunted him with monkey chants and racist slurs. Outside on the Fulham Road, bigots sold National Front News and urged fans to ‘Keep Britain White’.
This grotesque spectacle wasn’t confined to Chelsea. At every ground, black players faced abuse from supporters. We’ve come a long way since then. A few years ago, Paul Canoville returned to Stamford Bridge and did a lap of honour before the match. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. This season, Chelsea named a suite in his honour.
Yet before the game, when the players took the knee, some boos rang out. The pattern was repeated at other grounds. As the season continues, it’s likely that like last year we will still see fans booing players who take the knee. But the hostility of some sections of the crowd to a gesture associated with the Black Lives Matter movement should not be misconstrued as racism.
The founders of BLM describe themselves as ‘trained Marxists’. Their aims are to overthrow capitalism, undermine the ‘patriarchy’ and dispense with the kind of ‘toxic masculinity’ that is essential to the success of black, brown and white footballers. Can you imagine Ian Wright, Alan Shearer or even Gary Lineker without ‘toxic masculinity’ – that instinct to batter defenders and score at any cost? Who would they be without the work ethic and belief in merit that are now, along with the will to win and turning up to training on time, condemned as racist?
Some black players, like the Palace winger Wilfred Zaha, claim taking the knee is ‘degrading’. He recalled his parents teaching him to be ‘proud to be black no matter what and we should stand tall’. The problem is that the very idea of standing tall, and the ethic of personal responsibility and resilience it implies, runs counter to the way the idea of being anti-racist has been ideologically weaponised.
What matters to football players is they are rewarded for their skill and character. Fans of all colours support those values. They also used to be the values of anti-racists. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr and his steadfast belief in the primacy of character over colour, anti-racism united people as individuals. It allowed for error and forgiveness. It emphasised the common challenges that all people shared. It gave those who were racist the space and dignity to grow out of hate and learn to love and respect people as individuals, whatever the colour of their skin.
The cause of anti-racism in football is embraced by all fans with the exception of a tiny residue of unreconstructed white supremacists and emotionally stunted Twitter trolls. The boos now are not against black players. They’re aimed at the divisiveness of anti-racist ideologies imported from the United States that define being white as being racist. The fans resent being divided against each other in the name of a cause that they all want to see succeed. This is why most fans who boo when players take the knee are like Andrew, an England fan in his 40s, who objects to ‘an identity politics agenda that focuses on black people and skin colour when as far as I am concerned we are all England fans regardless of colour’.
After the killing of George Floyd, statues began to fall across the world. One of them was Edward Colston, a slave trader who was hauled off his plinth and cast into Bristol harbour. A photograph of Jen Reed, a protestor making the Black Power salute, went viral before being turned into a resin statue that stood for two days on Colston’s plinth. Less celebrated were the bikers and football fans who turned up to protest against the destruction of the statue of Colston. One of them, Nigel Horlock, stood on the plinth waving a Union Jack. In a documentary about Colston produced by the historian David Olusoga, Horlock took the camera crew to the estate where he grew up. He showed them where his friend was killed and told them about the poverty and abuse he suffered. ‘Race,’ he said, ‘is overshadowing the main problem of poverty… It’s not about black and white, it’s about rich and poor’.
The black mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, who had no love for the statue of Colston, realised he needed to keep his city united. Faced with protests outside his office demanding an apology for slavery, he asked, ‘am I to stand in front of a group of white progressive activists apologising for slavery? It’s a little bit more complicated than that.’
If football wants to tackle racism it needs to learn from these black leaders. Virtue signalling has its obvious rewards. Like any ritual, it confers status on those whose signals attract the most attention. But dividing the world into black and white, good and evil, oppressed and oppressor is naive and dangerous. It teaches people how to hate. It re-segregates fans by essentialising racial differences and collectivising guilt regardless of individual beliefs and behaviours. It opens the gates of hell and it will take more than a league of kneeling players to close them.
If Chelsea’s first black player faced down the hate of his own fans without the support of the footballing world, a current Chelsea player points to a better way forward. Antonio Rüdiger described the ‘real hatred’ he faced in Italy and the performativity of ‘captions on Instagram’ and ‘posting, posting, posting’. He also suggested a solution. After he’d been abused in a match in Italy, Daniel de Rossi sat next to him and said, ‘I know I will never feel the same as you. But let me understand your pain. What is going on inside your head?’ What moved Rüdiger was that de Rossi cared enough to ask. That basic empathy is what every fan and player wants to receive and is capable of giving in return. As Harold Kushner, a rabbi whose son was born with an incurable disease that would kill him in his teenage years, observed: ‘we are all brothers and sisters in suffering’.
The animosity of some fans towards taking the knee is not about racism. It’s an awareness than they are being divided on grounds of race by a gesture weaponised by a Marxist organisation. The former England international John Barnes claimed that football ‘is the least racist industry in this country’. We need to get off our knees and keep it that way.