Sport’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement

A year where sport showed its influence on the socio-political sphere. Source: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons.

By Tom Walker | Head of Sport

The Black Lives Matter movement started back in 2013 when Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi decided to create a ‘Black-centered political will and movement building project’ in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. The organization aimed to build local power to intervene in violence suffered by Black communities from the state and vigilantes. Since the killing of George Floyd on May 25 2020 in Minneapolis, the movement’s taken hold of the entire world as we continue to fight against social injustice and police brutality.

Sport has played a significant role in ensuring this message is on full display. From the NBA boycotting games in protest of the killing of Jacob Blake, to Naomi Osaka wearing masks emblazoned with the names of Black victims of police brutality and racial injustice; the sporting world has come together to support this incredibly important cause. 

In this article we will detail the work being done by different sports/sports organisations to support the Black Lives Matter movement, explore the importance sport can have in social movements like this and what more can be done.

Premier League: performative or genuine?

Upon it’s restart following a coronavirus enforced break, football returned looking to show its support and solidarity to the cause. The Premier League elected to replace the players names on the back of their shirts with the message Black Lives Matter, and supporting the notion for staff, officials and players to take a knee for a few seconds at the start of the game.

English football and the corporations in which dictate its proceedings have often been highly reluctant to getting on board, or even acknowledging any sort of political activism or discourse. When Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola sported a yellow ribbon in support of the independence movement in his native Catalonia in 2018, he was fined by the Football Association. In late 2019 Arsenal distanced themselves from star midfielder Mesut Ozil following his comments on China for its treatment of Uighur Muslims. And more recently Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said footballers may have set “uncomfortable precedents” by being politically active. 

It is difficult to withdraw a complete sense of sincerity from these sentiments towards the Black Lives Matter movement when the organisations and clubs have been so quick to disperse any attempt for social injustice awareness in the past.

Following nine games, the Black Lives Matter message was later reduced to just a small badge located on the sleeves of the kits, and at the start of the 2020/21 campaign was removed altogether in favour of its No Room For Racism initiative. 

English football has been quick to jump on the gesture train. However, only five of the current 91 (5.5%) managers and head coaches in England’s top four divisions are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, no BAME representation among referees and an increased amount of race-related incidents last season (e.g.  Haringey Borough choosing to walk off the pitch during an FA Cup game after Yeovil Town fans racially abused their players), it is time to iron out those issues and inconsistencies before preaching injustice in other areas of society.

The players themselves have been generally unionised in their support for the movement. Individuals like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have been fighting social injustice for years now, with the former focusing his work primarily on child poverty, and the latter being a spokesman for racial discrimination in football and wider society. The two young men have been a credit to themselves, recognising their platform and using it to educate and make real change.

Take a Knee

Taking a knee was originally a protest at the unfair treatment of Black Americans, but is now recognised as a globalised symbol against racism. The gesture originated in 2016 by American Football quarterback Colin Kaepernick who first sat on the bench during the US national anthem of a preseason game, before electing to take a knee in the next game, in protest of police brutality and racism.

Kaepernick said at the time: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.”

Following the death of George Floyd and the stark numbers of protests about social injustice around the world that preceded, the take a knee sentiment featured heavily among those fighting for justice. 

Similarly, many sports looked to include it in their own acts of support for the movement.

The Premier League, Premiership Rugby and the NBA just to name a few, all gave its players the opportunity to kneel and show their solidarity for Black Lives Matter. The gesture was not forced upon the participants, and there were a few examples of players who opted not to take the knee which was met with some backlash.  

England international Billy Vuinipola was one of those who chose not to take a knee ahead of Saracens’ game against Bristol, explaining that doing so would contradict his religious beliefs. 

“What I saw in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement was not aligned with what I believe in. They were burning churches and Bibles. I can’t support that,” Vunipola said.

Before Sale Shark’s game against Harlequins, 11 of Sale’s 15 players chose to stand as opposed to taking the knee. What ensued became rather messy, as fellow Sale player Marland Yarde claimed that his teammates received death threats for not kneeling, and the South African contingent of the team were criticized by their country’s sports minister Nathi Mthethwa.

Former Harlequiens player, and fellow South African Renaldo Bothma reacted to the minister’s statement with a fiery message on Twitter: “I will never take a knee to anyone else than GOD! Where are all these ministers when we need to take a knee for farm murders in South Africa and take action against corruption? We all can decide what we want to do!”

At the time of writing, no Sale player has responded, but perhaps Bothma’s words illustrated the complex political backdrop that inspired the decision not to take the knee. The decision to take a knee or not should not be an issue, and every athlete’s choice on the matter should be respected, otherwise the attention turns away from the actual issue at hand.

Exeter Chiefs’ director of rugby, Rob Baxter, said that rugby should stop trying to be a “political tool” and get back to being a sport. I don’t believe this is true, however when the fixation turns to something so minuscule such as whether an individual player partakes in a small gesture, sport loses all its credibility as a political tool and deflects from those looking to stand in solidarity and make a change.

When asked why his QPR team had opted not to take the knee in their first two Championship fixtures, Les Ferdinand, the clubs director of football explained that the gesture’s impact has now been “diluted”.

“The taking of the knee has reached a point of ‘good PR’ but little more than that. The message has been lost. It is now not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge.” He said in a club statement. “Taking the knee will not bring about change in the game – actions will.”

It is hard to disagree with Ferdinand, especially given that QPR are one of the most progressive clubs in England in terms of diversity of hire, with Ferdinand himself being one of the few Black directors of football in the country. 

Our priorities seem to be in the wrong order. In the NBA, Miami Heat player Myers Leonard elected not to take the knee due to his family’s military heritage. Instead of that dominating the news cycle for the next few days, he simply gave his explanation and with the support of teammates and league executives moved on. It is important to keep sight of the real problem. 

Athletic Union response 

I spoke to the Athletic Union President, Jude Pickett, to find out its stance on the movement, as well the Athletic Unions procedure upon any racial abuse/discrimination within University Sport.

“The Athletic Union, as part of Cardiff University Students Union, stands in solidarity with our black students.” She said. “Silence is an unacceptable response to racism and now more than ever, we need to tackle racism and discrimination as there is no place for it in modern society.”

“The Athletic Union and Cardiff University Students Union takes complaints regarding student behaviour and conduct very seriously. This includes any reports of racial abuse or discrimination. All reports are dealt with and resolved in line with our Student Members Complaints Procedure, Code of Conduct & Discipline and Appeals Procedures.”

I also asked why she believes sport can be such an effective front for social and political change: “Many sports, have national, international and global platforms which, if used in the right way, can influence behaviour and attitudes globally.” She explained. “From top level athletes, to beginners, a shared positive attitude towards progressive social and political change can help make the world a better place.”

What is next?

We are now in the influencer generation. What celebrities and athletes preach is now received and taken on by more people than ever. For all the downfalls that can have, when their platform is used correctly and is aligned with the right message, it can have a brilliant effect. 

As much as the athletes and players can preach the message, reality dictates that it is still those in the highrise boardrooms who hold the power to real change. The FA, Rugby Football Union, England and Wales Cricket Board, Lawn Tennis Association, England Golf, Rugby Football League, UK Athletics, British Cycling and England Hockey have just one black board member between them. 

There is still a long way to go in this battle for social justice, and sport is only one fragment of the social and political spectrum that requires more action. But if it continues to produce outspoken and passionate individuals on social and political issues and we as a society encourage them to speak out more, we might well be on the right path.

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