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Comment Matthew Paul

Taking the knee is as bad as booing

It’s perfectly fair to boo politicians. Everyone agrees on that. It’s also –more controversially– fair enough to boo players who miss crucial penalties. Ask Gareth Southgate, who until this year’s apotheosis was booed consistently for two decades after his Euro 1996 fluff-up. 

National anthems on the whole shouldn’t be booed (get that Welsh Nats?); still less –according to a consensus spanning the Labour Party, the panjandrums of Association Football and the more po-faced elements of print and broadcast media– football players who choose to kneel during those anthems rather than standing up for them.

Plenty of people this week have been booing Home Secretary Priti Patel, ironically enough because she had previously declined to condemn England fans in Euro 2020 booing their own side (and any other) for taking the knee. Asked about knee-booing at the start of the tournament, Patel said she didn’t support people “participating in that type of gesture politics.” But would she condemn the fans who booed? “That’s a choice for them, quite frankly.”

Patel has come slightly unstuck because her words are being volleyed back and forth in Parliament, in the light of nasty abuse dished out to Marcus Rashford, Jordan Sancho and Bukayo Saka –all of whom are black– for missing the penalties that lost England the cup.

The three lions’ (as supporters have dubbed them) wayward shots afforded a new and more diverse generation of Britons the opportunity to adopt the nation’s traditional affinity for gallant losers. They also provoked the nastiest people (or bots) on the internet to launch a particularly vicious campaign of racist hate.

Priti Patel says she is disgusted at the trolling. But Labour leader Keir Starmer –devoting five of his six questions at Wednesday’s PMQs to the subject– thinks or pretends to think it’s all her fault.

Although there is no obvious continuum between disapproving of taking the knee and hurling insults at someone online, that didn’t stop Starmer and others drawing a line from one to the other. “You don’t” England centre-back Tyrone Mings tweeted to Patel, “get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

No-one (except the sort of identity-fuelled lefty chumps who believe an woman of colour expressing right-wing views is a sort of racial apostate) is booing Priti Patel because she is Asian. And very, very few of the fans who boo players taking the knee are doing so because any of those players are black. Or, indeed, because they don’t support efforts to rid football of racism. They boo because taking the knee is pompous and stupid. 

The gesture –for a gesture it is, whether or not that constitutes ‘gesture politics’– is a divisive American import. It got going in a 2016 American Football match where two 49ers players, Colin Kaepernick and Erik Reid, declined to stand for the national anthem. Kaepernick said he could not stand to show pride in the flag of a country that oppressed black people. 

Though some inequalities persist, particularly in the justice system, the UK doesn’t by and large oppress black people. Any black person who gets paid tens of millions of pounds a year to play a game is experiencing an anomalous form of oppression. Anyone –black or otherwise– who plays Premier League football and is then selected to represent his country is, by definition, privileged. Far more so than any of the fans who booed them.

And the whole point of competing in a national tournament is to show pride in representing your country, isn’t it? If you can’t stand to show that pride, and adopt a gesture that slags your country off rather instead of displaying pride in it, you shouldn’t be playing for the national team in the first place.

This is why a lot of fans find the England players’ genuflections annoying. Taking the knee annoys people who are racists, which is fine. It also annoys people who aren’t racists and are a bit fed up with being told their country is intrinsically racist when it’s not.

It is unpleasant that Rashford & Co. received tweetloads of anonymous internet abuse, but Twitter is an unpleasant place, as any Welshman who has stood for political office in the Conservative and Unionist interest will be well aware. Anonymous and nonymous idiots are everywhere on the site, and the best thing to do with Twitter would be to nuke its servers from space. The next best thing is to ignore it.

People unpicking the abuse of the three lions have already discovered that much of the hate came from troll farms abroad. It’s reasonable to conclude that this ordure was sprayed over Twitter with the specific intention of fertilizing disharmony and racial tension in Britain. In that respect, it seems to be doing the trick. 

In whipping up antagonism towards the Home Secretary and blaming her for the persecution of the three lions, Labour are playing the trolls’ game. There is no similarity between disliking a political gesture steeped, post #BlackLivesMatter, in Marxist baggage; and in directing horrible, hate-filled messages to people because of the colour of their skin.

Booing pomposity is a great British tradition, and Priti Patel was right. Taking the knee is gesture politics –a churlish gesture at that– and it deserves all the boos it gets. 


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