Premier League’s naivety has left de­cent in­ten­tions mired in pol­i­tics

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Oliver Brown

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

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