The cause will never lose its power or meaning but the gesture? Well, the clue’s in the noun.
Gesture politics, an empty gesture – we’re never that happy with the concept of gestures and Premier League captains appear to have decided that this one, taking the knee as a condemnation of racism, has run its course.
It has not gone, because it is understood that some games – the biggest, most high-profile occasions – may still include the stance prior to kick-off.
This appears to be a very sensible compromise by players who have always thought more deeply about the issue than many believe. There were enough individual dissenters, such as Crystal Palace’s Ivory Coast international Wilfried Zaha, and now team refuseniks – Bournemouth did not take the knee in the Championship last season and won’t again in the Premier League – to merit a discussion, and this is the conclusion.
It makes sense. To abandon it altogether would be seen as defeat in the face of opposition, particularly at clubs like Millwall, Colchester and West Ham where the gesture has sometimes been met with a negative response.
To continue risks diluting the message. It becomes just another facet of the pre-match ritual, losing its impact and meaning.
So now the knee will be deployed, like a long ball over the top. Easily contained if done too frequently, but with real power if used appropriately. When and where is a matter for the captains and their teams. One imagines the games that will be seen – televised matches perhaps – or that attract attention and large followings will be marked by an anti-racist moment.
Erling Haaland (left) and Trent Alexander-Arnold took the knee ahead of the Community Shield
Wilfred Zaha was one of the few players who chose not to perform the gesture last campaign
Bournemouth players won’t take the knee before kick-offs in the Premier League this season
West Ham versus champions Manchester City on the first Sunday might have the profile of a knee game, or the London derby between Chelsea and Tottenham the following weekend.
That is a fixture with a history of racist abuse – anti-Semitic usually – and a stance against prejudice would be imbued with wider meaning.
Problems? Maybe the players will tire of having to enter logistical discussions in the build up to a game – one imagines Kevin De Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk have no great desire for conversation in the days before Manchester City play Liverpool – or maybe this is a judgment that can be made in a matter of seconds with the referee on the day.
Either way, it will need everybody on both sides to be on the same page. Can’t have the goalkeeper on his knees when the game kicks-off and the centre forward takes a punt. Everyone needs to have read the memo.
There are wider implications, too. Those with knowledge of feelings within the England camp say the players, with no shortage of Premier League captains among them, remain committed to taking the knee in Qatar this winter.
On the international stage, it remains a significant statement, particularly in a country where outsiders were deployed as slave labour, constructing the infrastructure that has made the tournament possible.
Taking the knee will be deployed in big televised contests – such as the north London derby
Racism is not just about black and white. Workers of south Asian origin have toiled in appalling conditions to create the 2022 World Cup. The knee recognises them, too – even if a more powerful statement could have been made by the major nations with a flat no to FIFA when the venue was announced.
It is also on the international stage where black England players have been targeted by racists. In that context, taking the knee remains a gesture of defiance before the eyes of the watching world, and still relevant.
Did it work, taking the knee? Some, like Zaha, will argue it did not. That football has not changed in two years, that racism remains endemic in society. Yet 22 players kneeling in public for a matter of seconds was never going to end racism. The plan was to raise awareness and in that regard it was successful.
In June 2020 a ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ banner flew overhead as the Clarets faced Manchester City in the Premier League – at the height of the Black Lives Matter issues
There were fresh conversations, new considerations, occasions when players shared their thoughts, not just on racism, but on the abuse that has become such a demoralising force. Debates around whether an England team could walk off abroad in the face of racist abuse, on social media controls, on the need for better coaching and management pathways, have all sprung from a simple, peaceful, gesture.
It was painted as Marxist, as a facade for a movement that wanted to defund the police, it was dragged into our current fetish for culture wars. It wasn’t about any of that. To the men and women who did it, taking the knee was a simple gesture of support for their colleagues and for action against racism. It has served its purpose, outlived its usefulness and will now be left to individuals to decide.
It will still be a gesture and never a solution but in this way, perhaps, it can be better targeted, and assume even greater power.