Premier League’s naivety has left decent intentions mired in politics
It is the most delicate judgment, working out how to mark a vital period in history with a noble, unifying statement that does not come across as a desperate scramble to capture the zeitgeist. With each day that passes, it appears that the Premier League, in its enthusiasm for filling TV screens with the Black Lives Matter message, is falling on the wrong side of that line. Matt Le Tissier was the first pundit to resist promoting the slogan on Sky, not in protest at the sentiment, but at the causes that he was being asked, by extension, to endorse.
Black Lives Matter did not magically materialise, as many seem to assume, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. As a political movement, it has been active since 2013, advocating civil disobedience in response to police brutality against African-Americans. In those seven years, its ambit has expanded to encompass certain causes a good deal less attuned to the popular mood.
The waters grew muddier still when the UK chapter of BLM tweeted last weekend that British politics was “gagged of the right to critique Zionism”. Since then, the slogan’s uniform projection by football analysts has been conspicuous by its absence, with Patrice Evra, Jamie Redknapp, Kelly Cates and Gary Neville all choosing not to wear BLM badges on Sky on Tuesday night.
Karl Henry, the former Wolves midfielder, has expressed a growing current of dissent, declaring: “Black people’s lives matter. The divisive Black Lives Matter organisation, however, does not.”
Here is the problem: a succinct slogan, whose literal meaning should brook no argument, has become inextricably intertwined with the more polarising organisation of the same name.
The Premier League could have saved itself any grief if, as per Henry’s suggestion, it had gone with “Black People’s Lives Matter” as its clarion call, or if it had trumpeted its own “No Room for Racism” campaign, launched last October. Instead, by implicitly hitching itself to the Black Lives Matter movement – not merely the message – it has painted itself into a corner.
You hear a lot from the Premier League about due diligence. It is one of its favourite phrases in relation to the interminable Saudi takeover saga at Newcastle United, which chief executive Richard Masters represented this week as “an entirely confidential process that involves all sorts of due diligence”.
You sometimes wonder, though, how assiduously this process is conducted in practice, given the skewering Masters received from the SNP’s John Nicholson about the full ghastliness of Riyadh’s regime. It is the same with Black Lives Matter: just how difficult was it for the Premier League to establish the problems of perception it might create by inscribing those words on every spare surface? It is not as if its officials needed to be embedded in a BLM demonstration to understand that many of the movement’s beliefs fell far outside the political mainstream. A glance at the BLM website would suffice.
There, under the heading “what we believe”, are such statements as “we are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege” and “we disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’”. These are convictions that have precious little to do with the banner of racial equality and diversity that the Premier League has embraced.
No one is disputing that it had to do something to herald the profound shifts in racial awareness unleashed by the Floyd tragedy, especially when players such as Raheem Sterling have been central to that quest. The blanket Black Lives Matter messaging gave the Premier League an effective way to show that it was sympathetic to their struggle. Those three words had already been written on a million placards, while becoming a globally-recognised hashtag. Plus, they were easy to fit across the back of a shirt, serving as a temporary substitute for players’ names.
One fact that should not be lost in this debate about what words signify, and to whom, is that attitudes on race are undergoing their most radical transformation for a generation. It is a moment that cries out to be seized, and nowhere more than in football. Where the complication arises is in the Premier League’s misguided appropriation of Black Lives Matter as a rallying cry, which invites the
charge that it is tacitly approving all causes under the BLM umbrella.
The Premier League insists that its stance is purely apolitical. “We do not endorse any political organisation or movement, not support any group that calls for violence or condones illegal activity.” Unfortunately, as a consequence of its own carelessness, it unwittingly does.
By putting Black Lives Matter on the shirts of every top-flight player in the land, it is entangling itself in the platform of a movement that, for a start, has posted highly inflammatory posts about Palestine.
The game has always held firm on political stands. When Pep Guardiola wore a yellow ribbon in 2018 to signal support of imprisoned Catalan politicians, he was fined £20,000 by the Football Association, which insisted it was a political symbol. The same charge could today be levelled at the Premier League.
While it believes it is expressing an incontestable truth, it is also lending legitimacy to an organisation pursuing more dubious ends. And while it believes it is closing a painful chapter on racism, it is instead opening Pandora’s box, where decent intentions and divisive politics messily collide.
Protest: Players and officials take the knee before last night’s game between West Ham and Chelsea (top); the Black Lives Matter badge has featured on shirts and at Premier League stadiums