Players, Protests, and the PL: Supporting those taking a stand

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police has sparked protests across the globe in response to systemic racism and injustice. The Premier League needs to ensure players have every right to use their global stage to join in once games resume.

On May 25th, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd had his neck pressed for eight minutes and forty-six seconds by a police officer, while Floyd laid face-down on the ground, handcuffed. Floyd died due to asphyxiation, the latest in a long line of black victims of police brutality.

Pushed to the breaking point by years of excessive force and violence from the police, and a deeply oppressive, ingrained system that has exacerbated the pain and suffering brought forth by COVID-19, protests have broken out, not just in the United States, but all over the world.

These protests are demanding justice, equality, and a focus on ending the systemic racism that has plagued society since the days of the slave trade. Some police and politicians across America have responded with tear gas, vitriol, and violence.

In the midst of it all, there has been an outpouring of support for the protesters from the footballing community in Europe, particularly from people of colour, many of whom have been targeted by racist abuse in the past, and have had to scratch and claw their way to the top through systems that are designed to keep them down.

Some teams have kneeled in solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement as they return to contact training, while others have seen players post individual messages condemning the violence and racism faced by black men and women from every walk of life, and voicing their support for those on the streets, exercising their right to protest.

However, their reach will be magnified when the Premier League returns on June 17th.

The Bundesliga’s Protest

As it is doing with Project Restart, the Bundesliga is providing a template for the Premier League on how players can protest, and how the FA should deal with them. Over the last weekend, several Bundesliga players used their platform to speak out against the injustice faced by the black community.

Borussia Dortmund players Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi wore shirts bearing the phrase “Justice For George Floyd”. After scoring, Mönchengladbach forward Marcus Thuram took a knee, a form of peaceful protest popularised by former NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Weston McKennie wore an armband with Floyd’s name on it.

In a move that is uncommon in the world of football and player protests, the DFB decided not to punish players for on-field protests related to Floyd’s death, releasing the following statement:

The DFB has made a strong stand against any form of racism, discrimination or violence and stands for tolerance, openness and diversity, values which are also anchored in the DFB’s statutes. Therefore the players’ actions have our respect and our understanding. (Via: inquirer.com)

This provides the example that the Premier League has to follow.

The Importance of Player Protests

With a cumulative global audience of 3.2 billion over the course of a season, the Premier League, for better or worse, carries a sense of social responsibility.

With the eyes of the world upon them, the players have the chance to keep the fight for justice alive through their actions, by keeping the protests at the forefront of one of the most-watched television programmes on the planet.

The impetus of the protesters needs to be sustained in order to bring about long-term, effective change at a grassroots level, and the players of the Premier League can help ensure these voices continue to have a global reach.

Those that play in the league are respected and admired all over the world. They are heroes to children and adults alike, and to see something that deeply affects someone that the fans care about can inspire change in those that may feel, otherwise, disconnected from protests. Salah’s success at Liverpool reduced the levels of Islamophobia and hate crime in England.

This is the power that footballers have at their disposal, and this needs to be directed towards fighting for justice. Footballers have dealt with abhorrent levels of racist abuse for far too long, from Raheem Sterling being victimised by English tabloids, to monkey chants in stadiums directed at black players, to endless streams of filth being spewed on Twitter.

This represents a chance to start truly fighting back on the pitch, to truly lay bare the deep-rooted, racially charged flaws in modern society, and start bringing about real change. In order to do this, however, they need the complete backing of the FA and the Premier League.

The Premier League’s Response

The Premier League indicated that they will adopt a “common sense approach” to protests regarding Floyd’s murder and police brutality. This is a vague, non-committal response, that is not good enough.

The league needs to build on the example set by the Bundesliga, and openly back the players that will protest. Until they do so, there is a risk that they will become like the NFL, which blackballed Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest to police brutality, effectively ending his playing career, yet had the temerity to release a half-baked statement supporting protesters.

The Premier League’s problems with racism cannot be fixed overnight, but systemic issues within the stadiums and online can start to be addressed when the league openly supports players that are raising their voices in protest.

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While men, women and children gather in streets, squares, and parks to fight against years of inequality, hatred, and brutality, the least the world of sports can do is amplify their voices, and ensure that they reach as far as possible.

This is not a political issue, this is a societal issue, and it’s up to the Premier League to ensure it falls on the right side of history.