“As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”. In December 2019, the club made this press release in order to distance themselves from midfielder Mesut Özil’s criticism of re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang region, where up to 1,000,000 Uyghur Muslims have been detained.
The relationship between commercial sport and politics has long proved problematic. Reading Arsenal’s comments, I felt yet another wave of disillusionment with my beloved football club, and became curious of what other pressing social concerns can be quietly dismissed as ‘politics’.
The death of George Floyd has coincided with what seemed like a growing trend of racially charged abuse in our football leagues. While discrimination remains rife, social media has facilitated the swift capturing of those involved in racially charged attacks in and around stadiums. However, you cannot help but feel that those in executive positions at football clubs refrain from engendering lasting change.
High-profile, recent incidents include Leeds United’s Kiko Casilla’s attacks on Charlton’s Jonathan Leko, which did not result in an apology from the club. Their decision to not get involved is in itself a political decision, and the current social debate going on provides an excellent spotlight with which to evaluate clubs’ true priorities.
Amidst the brand deals, inflated transfer markets and corporate bureaucracies, it is easy to forget football’s historic capacity for political and social defiance. A study of our football clubs reveals a history drenched in covert political affiliation. Bill Shankly’s famous adoption of socialism (“it’s the way I see football, it’s the way I see life”) has long been synonymous with the Anfield pitch, with its values of collective strength and harmony. Likewise, amidst its long and controversial history, Bayern Munich is partially remembered for its Nazi resistance and public support to Jewish communities during World War II.
The Black Lives Matter movement has undoubtedly provided a glimmer of hope in reversing the stigmatisation of socio-political narratives that have become increasingly frequent in modern sport. Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic kneeling, for which he was ousted from the NFL, has now been adopted by all Premier League teams, representing a greater recognition within sport for what has always been a wholly political action (contrary to the opinion of Dominic Raab).
There have been extensive showings of support for the BLM movement in football. Weston McKennie, a United States international, wore a ‘Justice for George Floyd’ armband while playing for Schalke. Despite initially being told to remove the armband, his refusal later sparked praise from Angela Merkel. Speaking post-match, McKennie stated that “there is a rule in the league about not taking political statements but if you look at this as a political statement then I don’t know what to tell you.” This example coincides with hundreds of players and clubs observing tributes to Floyd both in-match and on social media.
However, the question as to whether this is merely a token gesture in light of the BLM movement’s momentum on social media, or is actually a corporate acknowledgement of football’s institutional racism, is one that remains. To answer this, we must look at the actions of the senior stakeholders of the industry, such as CEOs, directors and sponsors. The utilisation of a player’s global platform to incite change, demonstrated so succinctly by Marcus Rashford, is finally being realised and encouraged. However, the vast success of individual activism by players speaks volumes about the failed potential and apathy of their sponsorship partners and parent clubs. It is these institutions that have overseen the influx of unprecedented wealth into the game, previously rendering young athletes as malleable cash cows robbed of a voice. These same bodies still neglect to recognise racism as a human rights issue that bears no relevance to ideology or party politics and continue to do the ‘bare minimum’.
Through dozens of interviews and appearances, Raheem Sterling has done far more for raising awareness of the issue of racism than most of football’s surrounding bodies, yet he has repeatedly spoken of wishing not have to be a spokesperson for his community. I wonder for how long our press can sit back and expect Sterling to educate football fans on the history of systemic racism before the realisation hits them that it is us, the fans, who need to do the self-evaluation and research?
To dispel allegations of tokenism, honesty must be imperative to the business conduct of our sporting institutions going forward. As consumers and fans, we will learn just how honest brands and clubs are willing to be when there is money on the line. Take Adidas, who have been running ad campaigns with messages of solidarity and tolerance, all the while conveniently dropping Özil as a partner after his aforementioned comments.
For football culture to truly progress, our surrounding institutions must recognise the lack of representation at boardroom level and their role in sustaining systemic white privilege. By promoting an honest forum where a history of deeply embedded abuse is acknowledged, perhaps we will see less clubs writing urgent issues off as politics.