That Premier League players are no longer required to take the knee at every game by the 2021/2022 season begs a pertinent question: did it really work and was it worth it? Put differently, when does a performance of an anti-racist ritual in sports neutralize its activist politics? The answer depends on whom you ask, but for two prominent Black players, the answer was significantly varied.
The resumption of matches in the Premier League in June 2020 after a pandemic-forced break came back with players kneeling for a few seconds after the opening whistle. It was a powerful and symbolic protest and a vital embodied performance against racism in English football that was inspired by Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Pre-match kneeling to protest racial injustice soon became a common sight in stadia across England, drawing mixed reactions from supporters and critics, even as it caused stirs and boos in several European countries.
As the announcement was finally made that taking the knee would no longer continue in its previous iteration, what has actually been achieved by the expression of support by England-based footballers for one another and Black people around the world? With the Premier League making knee-taking a less frequent ritual, which will mostly be required of players only in certain matches like those on Boxing Day fixtures, an important ritual of protest can retain its performative force. While the Premier League has said in a statement that it remains “resolutely committed to eradicate racial prejudice and to bring about an inclusive society with respect and equal opportunities for all,” the real issue remains one of the persistence of racial injustice which only a symbolic act could not undo. In other words, as the protests started by Premier League club captains initially got endorsed and, in a sense, coopted by officials as part of efforts to underscore the League’s opposition to racism and its commitment to equality, there remains a lingering feeling that not much progress was being made.
This perspective anchors the often-referenced disposition of England-born Ivory Coast international for whom continued kneeling without a commensurate change in the system produced a non-working system. Zaha appeared to be suggesting that rather than any evident alterations in social conduct and values, what was achieved was the mediatized emptying of a powerful gesture through an ineffectual routineness. Hence, beyond the performed ritual of kneeling, other concrete and material changes that address, for example, things like the criminally low number of Black managers and referees s do need to become visible. When the Crystal Palace forward stopped kneeling in 2021, he said the protest had become “a part of the prematch routine” that does very little to change ingrained problems of race. Although he would rather “stand tall,” Zaha, crucially, did not see any problem with taking the knee. His problem was that it was not working. But he of all people understood its visceral power to highlight the blights of racial hatred. What was irksome for the former United star was how the act had become casualized as another sporting ritual with no material connections to the quotidian and ugly realities of race that frequently tarnish the beautiful game. Like the one directed at Gunners forward Eddie Nketiah in 2021 that made Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham conclude online racism is football’s “biggest problem” that must not be underestimated.
Yet, Zaha was probably an outlier, for there were other Black players such as former Watford captain Troy Deeney who, in his recent autobiography, wrote of the need to “keep taking the knee until something changes.” This was in response to how the lack of concrete action to end racism was seen as “evidence that taking the knee is not working and therefore we should abandon it.” For Deeney, players had a huge platform in the Premier League to show solidarity and direct the world’s attention to the problems of racial injustice. From this standpoint, one significant way of addressing the tenacity of race in football is through an equally relentless performance of bodily resistance that sufficiently remains in the public view to provoke more conversations and eventual change. Of course, non-Black players are routinely abused online, sometimes the most, but that is hardly on the basis of their race.
And it has to be said, Deeney’s approach to only stop kneeling until real change is evident seems sensible, for although many English players both at league matches and in national team colours abroad continued with the gesture, the ugliness of racism continued in some quarters. For instance, years of discriminatory attitudes towards Black footballers in England once again became painfully reiterated after the Euro 2020 soccer final that involved a penalty shootout against Italy. After missing a decisive kick, the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka became scapegoated by irate fans on social media who flooded his Twitter timeline, and those of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, with racist language and symbols.
The politics of knee-taking may remain controversial, but it certainly makes sense that it continues in some ways in the Premier League. There is something to be said about leaving politics out of sporting activities, but this is hardly sustainable since the racist actors who distract from the fun could hardly be said to be apolitical. Whether the latest move to stop taking the knee is about the coming world cup in Qatart or not, as some pundits claim, to take the knee does acknowledge that a problem is deeply embedded in the system and more still needs to be done collectively to push back against it.
At the same time, the real change that is needed—and this is the point both Zaha and Deeney made in different ways—cannot be merely cosmetic and focused only on prematch rituals or even on empty political dissociations from racist and political groups; more needs to be done to actually change the social conditions that generate racial injustice of any type. That way, the ritual performance and its processuality, even in the playful frameworks of football, might contribute to a necessary social transformation.