Symbolic or Diluted; Does Taking a Knee to Fight Racism still have the same effect?

Have you ever said a word over and over and over again, until it begins to sound weird, almost as if it is no longer a word and is now something altogether different? Just a noise that your mouth is making, devoid of any meaning, at least that your brain can work out.

That phenomenon, known as semantic satiation, can be applied to professional footballers who take a knee, to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This iconic form of protest has been normalised by exposing the general public to it regularly before televised sporting events and, as such, has seen its impact and general meaning begin to wane.

Kneeling as a form of protest in sport first gained mainstream media attention way back in 2016, which now seems like a lifetime ago. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, famously knelt during the playing of the United States national anthem to campaign against police brutality. Kaepernick, despite unjustly being robbed of his American football career when he made a statement that day, has since become a figurehead in the Black Lives Matter movement and an inspiration to people across the globe.

Kneeling took a while to gain traction, due to criticisms that it was unpatriotic by individuals such as former US President, Donald Trump, but it has since become a widespread ritual before the commencement of a variety of different sporting activities. At first, the impact was huge, partly due to the controversial nature of the action, particularly in American sport. However, as mentioned above, the very fact that kneeling has now become part and parcel of what players do pre-game, has led some to accuse the action of having lost its symbolic meaning.

Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, became the first Premier League player to speak out against taking a knee, feeling it to be “degrading” and stating that he was brought up to “stand tall” against racism. This issue is bound to garner greater media attention as soon as an entire Premier League team follows suit in refusing to take a knee, with such decisions so far limited to the lower echelons of English football. However, momentum against taking a knee is growing.

Championship striker Ivan Toney, whose Brentford side have said they will no longer take a knee, has said that the movement has declined, such that the players are now being used as “puppets”, concurring with QPR director of football, Les Ferdinand, who said the message is now “not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge”. Sure enough, the kneeling movement looks set to die out, as it was always likely to do, with sides like QPR preferring to focus their efforts on engendering effective change in the fight against social injustice.

England manager Gareth Southgate, who has stressed the continued relevance and importance of kneeling will soon be in the minority, with a growing number of people beginning to believe that taking a knee has provided a scapegoat for those higher up in sport from making any actual progress towards racial equality. Clearly, taking a knee is not enough, for a growing number of professional footballers continue to be subjected to horrendous racist abuse on social media.

However, should taking a knee be abandoned? In my opinion, no.

If individuals higher up the footballing hierarchy want to ignore issues of racism, I, perhaps sceptically, believe that they will just continue to do so, irrespective of the collective efforts of those beneath them. By kneeling, players can highlight issues of social injustice and use the period before games to protest and campaign for a better, united future.

Has the message of kneeling been diluted? Absolutely, everybody has gotten used to it, so its ‘wow’ factor has inevitably disappeared. However, has it lost its relevance entirely? I would say not.

It should be noted that, in spite of the value of collective support, I am strongly in favour of players being able to make their own personal decisions on matters like these. In my view though, the very fact that when the players kneel, the commentators on that day will talk about the Premier League’s ‘No Room for Racism’ policy, in association with Kick It Out, illustrates that it still has value. It gets that message out there.

Children watching football on television will hear this commentary and if the message can affect just one child, then I believe it is worthwhile.

Furthermore, I believe that kneeling should actually be extended down to grassroots football, for this is where it can have the greatest impact. If this next generation of kids, that we want to be role models in the fight towards a society that provides equal opportunities to everyone, regardless of race, get actively involved with the campaign themselves, by physically kneeling, they can feel its message on a more personal, emotional level. Hopefully, then it will resonate more.

Kneeling does not have the impact it once did. However, the battle against racism is one that needs to be led by the younger generation, for the equal society that we are trying to mould is the one that they will live in and lead. Therefore, since, as a young person myself, I believe that kneeling still has an impact on young people watching football and other sporting events on television, it should be retained and even expanded. Abandoning an outlet that players have to fight social injustice, especially when obtaining one was so hard to come by in the first place, as the demise of Kaepernick’s career only serves to demonstrate, may prove to be a mistake.

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Luke Saward

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September 2021
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