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The racists won.
Before Millwall’s game with Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday, the players from both teams held up some kind of banner for equality before kickoff. Then, as the game got underway, the QPR players took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The Millwall players did not. Nobody audibly booed.
In any other context, the banner thing would have been a nice gesture in support of the right side of history. A fairly sedate one, but a gesture nonetheless. But the actual circumstances here are wholly damning.
On Saturday, Millwall, an English team in the second-tier Championship, lost at home to Derby County. It was their eighth straight game without victory. But it wasn’t what happened in the game that caused an instant uproar. It was the moments just before it. Ever since English soccer restarted in June following a three-month layoff, all teams have briefly taken a knee as the games began to support BLM.
Last weekend, fans were allowed to return to some English stadiums for the first time since the start of the pandemic. A few thousand were admitted to the stadiums in areas where cases are relatively low. Millwall’s fans summarily took the opportunity to boo their own players, and the opposition, when they took their now-customary knee.
Millwall’s fans have a reputation for being England’s most racist following, which is quite the distinction to earn. The club is owned by the American John Berylson and has been trying for years to rid itself of that moniker. Some subset of the fans, however, doesn’t seem interested in being viewed as anything other than bigoted.
The furor was instant. And Millwall itself said in a statement that it was “dismayed and saddened by events which marred Saturday’s game.”
“The club has worked tirelessly in recent months to prepare for the return of supporters and what should have been a positive and exciting occasion was completely overshadowed,” the statement read. “Much to the immense disappointment and upset of those who have contributed to those efforts.”
The club also proclaimed that, “The players are continuing to use the biggest platform they have to support the drive for change, not just in football but in society generally.”
The Millwall Supporters’ Club, for its part, said the booing wasn’t racist but a reaction to what it viewed as the politics of the Black Lives Matter organization. Or something.
An investigation by the Football Association is underway. But George Eustice, home secretary for the United Kingdom’s Conservative government, refused to condemn the booing under the guise of the same bad-faith argument about BLM’s politics.
Yet on Monday came word that Tuesday’s Millwall home game against QPR would be preceded not by kneeling but by the two teams standing arm-in-arm to “show solidarity for football’s fight against discrimination.” In a meeting, the sides agreed on the banner. And Millwall’s jerseys would sport the logo of the Kick It Out campaign against discrimination.
The apparent compromise was backed by the English Football League, the governing body of the three professional divisions below the Premier League.
In yet another statement, Millwall proclaimed that the gesture “will help to unify people throughout society in a battle to root out all forms of discrimination.” It reiterated its “zero-tolerance policy against racial and all other forms of discrimination” and that “anybody who holds such views” is “not welcome at this football club.” It threatened lifetime bans for racist behavior.
Yet its fans have already demonstrated racist behavior by booing an innocuous showing of support for racial equality. It is a movement that was politicized by its evidently pro-racist opposition. And dismissing it on account of politics follows a disingenuous and circular logic that conflates the movement’s purpose with the effort to discredit it. Those fans face no apparent consequences from the club, which could identify them if it really wanted to.
QPR cast Millwall’s response in an even more shameful light when Ilias Chair and teammate Bright Osayi-Samuel kneeled and raised their fists in front of Millwall’s main supporters’ section after Chair’s goal Tuesday.
Millwall, for its many claims to the contrary, caved to the racists. In wishing for this thing to go away, it has surrendered the cause. In hoping to remove the opportunity for yet more disastrously bad PR, it has retrenched the message. Yet the point of protest is to create some discomfort. The whole idea is to challenge views. It’s to make a statement about your principles in the face of possible blowback. Kneeling is never more effective than when it is done in front of the fans who don’t believe in the movement or racial justice it represents.
The correct response to booing is to stand firm. Or, rather, to keep kneeling.
If a club truly valued the protest itself, rather than just going through the quasi-mandatory motions, that is.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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