Millwall Football Club, Booing Those Taking the Knee & Anti-Racism in English Football: Some Thoughts & Reflections
It’s not easy being a fan of Millwall Football Club. While it is undeniably true that ‘No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care’ — as the fans sing on the terraces — it is also undeniably true that some Millwall fans really don’t seem to care about the Club and its players either. As was evident at the weekend when some Millwall fans booed players from both Millwall and Derby County while taking the knee. The first weekend fans had been allowed back into football grounds since the start of the pandemic, the mood at the New Den quickly morphed from one of celebration to one of outrage. Unilaterally condemned since — by the Football Association (FA), Kick It Out, ex-players and tv presenters among many others — the only seeming outliers are the actor Laurence Fox and Environment Minister, George Eustice both of whom seemed to choose to explain that Black Lives Matter is a ‘political movement’ in preference of making any explicit condemnation.
Some Necessary Caveats
Before going any further it is important to set out a number of caveats. First, that I have been a Millwall fan since my first match at the ‘Old’ Den in 1973 when I was seven years old. I was there during the ‘bad old days’ throughout the 1980s, I was at the infamous 1985 match (riot) at Luton which prompted Margaret Thatcher to establish a ‘war cabinet’ against football hooliganism, I was there during Millwall’s two seasons in the top flight of English football, and was also there at the move to the ‘New’ Den.
During that time, I have called out racism when I have seen it — and bore the brunt of some fans’ hostility for doing so — and have been terrified at the occasional match too, the last being the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic in 2013 when I feared that fighting between our own fans would spill over a few more rows and embroil those where I was standing with my young daughter.
Unequivocally, I’m no apologist for some or all Millwall fans.
The second is that it’s important to make a distinction between Millwall the club and some of its fans. There are times when I feel really sorry for the Club. Over decades, the Club has fought hard to rid itself of the image many associate with it. In 2019 alone, the Club hosted a conference about tackling discrimination in football in collaboration with the English Football League (EFL), Kick It Out, Show Racism the Red Card and the Football Supporters Association, imposed ‘bans for life’ to those involved in racist chanting, closed a section of the stadium where some of the most problematic supporters were known to sit, and sent members of the board into the crowd to talk directly to fans about what was expected of them during matches. Add in the work of the many anti-racism campaigns initiated by the Millwall Community Trust and the distance between Club and some its fans becomes readily apparent.
Taking the Knee
The roots of taking the knee in English football can be traced back to the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in towns and cities across the country in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, United States in May this year. While sparking violence and protests in cities across the States, the protests here were overwhelmingly peaceful. Solidarity for those protesting soon found its way into football spaces, Jadon Sancho — the England international — unveiling an undershirt emblazoned with ‘Justice for George Floyd’ after scoring for his team Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga. Around the same time, Manchester United players Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford added their voices to the protests that had begun to spread worldwide.
A day or so after Sancho’s reveal, Liverpool FC shared on social media a photo of its players and staff taking the knee alongside the caption “Unity is strength. #BlackLivesMatter”. When Premier League and Championship matches resumed later that month, not only did every player and match official take the knee prior to kick off but so too were the names on the back of their shirts replaced by the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’. While the names reappeared on shirts for the next round of matches, the decision to take the knee has continued to the present day: something that has sadly become ever more performative with every passing week.
The practice of taking the knee in sport is widely attributed to American football star Colin Kaepernick who did so during the national anthem in the build-up to the San Francisco 49ers’ match against San Diego Chargers in 2016. A powerful silent act, Kaepernick did so to protest against police brutality directed at black people and racism in the US. Seen by some as an act of disrespect towards the country’s national anthem, Kaepernick not been signed by a team since. In spite of this, similar protests — by individuals and teams alike — have spread to other sports including baseball, basketball, hockey and of course, football.
Same But Different
While League One and League Two had also begun to follow the lead of the Premier League and Championship, there was a significant difference in taking the knee in the English football spaces than in other sports. As I asked in a tweet from 18 June this year:
“While footballers taking the knee has been largely supported by the media, authorities etc, would they still be as supportive if they did so during the national anthem in the way Colin Kaepernick did…? More symbolic & less supported I would guess. Thoughts…?”
Because taking the knee was detached from the playing of the national anthem, what was evident from the outset in English football was not only a much watered down version of what Kaepernick did but so too was it largely apolitical as a collective gesture. While it would be unfair to say that it wasn’t political for individual players, the formalisation of the gesture where all were required to perform the act of taking the knee in conjunction with each other and at a designated time was far removed from being a bottom-up act of protest. English football’s version was instead a top-down corporatized performance that looked good to a global television audience and sent out the ‘right’ message. That it navigated around the ‘disrespectful’ aspects of what Kaepernick did was not by accident therefore: no one connected with English football would have wanted any England player — black or white — to kneel during the national anthem. Why? Because like some Millwall fans at the weekend, they too would have booed which would have shattered the view that the English game had been ‘cleaned up’.
This was no more evident than in the Premier League’s attempts to distance itself and English football from the more ‘political’ elements of the Black Lives Matter movement as soon as the performance of taking the knee had been formalised. At the end of June, Richard Masters — the Premier League’s chief executive — issued a statement clarifying that the League only supported the ‘moral’ dimensions of the Black Lives Matter movement. Accordingly, it did not support the ‘political’ aims albeit without clarifying exactly what those ‘political’ elements were. Can anti-racism ever be non-political? And then in November, Masters further clarified the League’s position by stating that they supported players taking the knee in a stand against racial injustice not in support of Black Lives Matter. In truth, English football’s version of taking the knee was the polar opposite of the NFL precedent.
To Take or Not to Take
English football’s sanitised and corporatized performance is no better summed up than by its coverage on the BBC’s Match of the Day and Match of the Day 2 programmes. Necessarily shoehorned into the highlights reel of the opening match on consecutive nights each and every week, the commentator solemnly reminds viewers of the official reason why players are taking the knee. The problem is however that most week, those reasons change slightly: in recent weeks commentators have cited racial injustice, anti-racism, social inequalities and the need to combat all forms of discrimination. Waiting for the commentators to come up with something ever more bland and meaningless to explain why players and officials continue to take the knee has for me at least become an increasingly painful experience I am forced to endure.
I am not alone in this respect and was no better articulated than by Les Ferdinand, the former England international and now Director of Football at Queens Park Rangers (QPR) FC when he said:
“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…
…What are our plans with this? Will people be happy for players to take the knee for the next ten years but see no actual progress made?
Taking the knee will not bring about change in the game — actions will”
While individual QPR players have — and indeed continue to — take the knee, the Club has left it up to their players to decide whether they choose to or not. In other words, let players think and act for themselves and importantly, be political if they so choose. According to recent figures, while sixteen of the 36 games played in England’s four divisions during the first weekend of November saw players not take the knee prior to kick-off all Premier League matches did. Is it any coincidence that these were also the games that had the widest television audiences too?
In the wake of the comi-tragic appearance of Greg Clarke — the FA’s chairman — before the digital, culture, media and sport select committee at the start of November it is all too clear that English football needs more than mere gestures if it to tackle racism and other forms of discrimination in the game. In using the term ‘coloured’ to describe black, Asian and those from minority ethnic backgrounds, suggesting that those of South Asian heritage choose careers in IT over football because they had “different career interests”, describing a gay player coming out as a “life choice” and telling an anecdote about how girl footballers are afraid of being hit by a ball, Clarke ignominiously offended as many different groups of people as he possibly could have albeit without seemingly trying. He was, in essence, a mirror of English football and the very real problems that exist within it.
A Deeper Problem
Which brings me back to the booing by some Millwall fans, in particular the statement released by the Millwall Supporters Club. As they put it, “the motives of those behind the booing were not racist…” but instead a “…reaction to the war memorials and statues of Churchill defaced by the BLM organisation and the extreme political views they hold, and for which ‘taking the knee’ is associated with”. But what about the extreme political views of those who chose to violently ‘defend’ the statues earlier this year, those linked to Tommy Robinson, Britain First and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance among others? Aren’t they equally problematic?
While I have some sympathy with the statement from the Millwall Supporters Club about the gesture of ‘taking the knee’ having “run its course”, I have none as regards its comment that “the booing shows [no] disagreement with anti-discrimination”. Whether rightly or wrongly, the booing not only felt like it was racist but so too probably was. It is worth noting that Millwall’s next match in front of their own fans (tonight) is against QPR. Given there are claims that at least one Millwall player will leave the pitch if fans again boo, it is unlikely that the situation will de-escalate anytime soon. If the player in question is black, the likely booing of him in this and indeed future matches is likely to inflame the situation even further. What this will mean for the Club, the players and the fans — not all of whom support the booing — can only be speculated upon. Despite the best intentions of everyone at the Club, planning to carry a banner, replacing the team sponsor’s logo with that of Kick it Out and joining arms with the QPR players in an act of solidarity is unlikely to change the minds of those who did boo and no doubt will do again.
Blaming and Shaming
In trying to find a positive, maybe the booing affords an opportunity to critically re-evaluate what English football has been claiming it has been doing for the past six months. Whether in support of the moral or political elements of the Black Lives Matter movement, English football has flattered to deceive when it comes to tackling racism and other forms of discrimination. Through corporately endorsing and enforcing a wholly sanitised act of collective performance, it has sought to convey a misleading message that it not only cares about racism and discrimination but so is taking action against it while in truth doing nothing whatsoever. Taking the knee has merely deflected attention and scrutiny away from its own known historical failings: nothing more, nothing less. Stripping away the political protest underlying the act of taking the knee, English football has instead imbued it with institutional politics: negating the politics of individuals and communities in preference of those who have the power to catalyse change but have repeatedly chosen not to use it.
As has always been the case, while the FA — and a largely complicit media — will latch upon the ignorance of some Millwall fans to posture about how abhorrent racism is and why it is a necessary evil that needs eradicating from the English game, the finger of blame and responsibility to act will be firmly directed at Millwall FC. Despite being sincere in its approach to trying to tackle racism and other forms of discrimination, blaming the Club is both the easy and wrong solution to the problem. Chastising and sanctioning the Club will achieve little beyond reinforcing the narrative that it is only clubs like Millwall where racism and discrimination is a problem. While Millwall may have fans stupid enough to openly boo players ‘taking the knee’, they are not exclusive to the New Den: there are fans at many other clubs who will feel exactly the same as has become evident at Colchester FC.
Where we go from here is uncertain and I really do fear the worse. Without doubt, it’s not going to get any easier for Millwall FC nor is it going to get any easier to be a Millwall fan especially those of us that are anti-racist.