Premier League footballers ‘taking a knee’ came at the end of the 2019-20 season, when stadiums were empty due to the first Covid lockdown. Thus, the game’s wealthy elite were spared having to initiate fashion in front of full houses. By the time the fans returned, it was a done deal, normalized by endless right-thinking newspaper columns and on-air political speeches by football pundits on television.
Only one point of view on the matter was allowed. Any supporter who dissented over the gesture of support for the Black Lives Matter campaign risked being branded a finger-scratching racist.
Given that the gesture emerged in the US as a show of outright rejection of society – and given that British BLM supporters were at the time gleefully defacing the Cenotaph and the statue of Churchill on Parliament Square during their “mostly peaceful” riots – this demand for acquiescence was outrageous. While the players may have been on their knees, the fans were brought to heel.
Two years later, we learn that the knee grip will be shortened in the Premier League. Now it will only be deployed on feast days and holidays after it was deemed to have lost its impact and lost its usefulness.
But the conceit encapsulated by the fact that players were allowed to make a political gesture, while paying bettors were simultaneously banned from expressing their disapproval, told many match fans all they needed to know about their place in the new hierarchy of football: right at the bottom of the heap.
There were other clues to be fair: the last-minute postponement of games due to demands from television payors; the constant pressure for an artificial ’39e round of matches to be staged in the various Premier League emerging markets abroad; and above all the attempt by the “big six” clubs to slam the door on the last vestiges of open competition by awarding themselves permanent places in a new European Super League project.
Still, it was the knee grab that caused me to end my eight years as a two-time season ticket holder at West Ham. Thought I’d travel to see more of my real team – Cambridge United – instead. But that option disappeared when the powers-that-be at Abbey Stadium threatened to ban supporters who booed when players performed the knee-hold ceremony. While I would have limited my own response to sullen silence, I sent a message to the club’s Twitter account to say that this proposal was a ridiculous violation of the supporters’ rights to free speech. For this I was blocked. This ended more than 40 years of tracking home and away from the U.
Absent an apology, I am not proposing to revert to game day Saturdays. I know a lot of supporters who feel the same way. It will be interesting to see how the Premier League fare this season expecting fans to shell out £50 a game and more during a cost of living crisis to attend a competition that has become increasingly skewed in favor of the richest clubs.
Gardening and weekend coastal walks more than filled the void for me. I also wouldn’t trade for a return to being taken for granted by a once-beautiful game that turned into a spoiled sport. I like to watch the women’s super league on TV and maybe pick up a few non-league games (“there’s no such kneeling rubbish there,” a mate at the pub told me the another night), but the spell is broken.
English men’s professional football came to see itself as a matter of life and death for supporters who would therefore accept any indignity thrown at them. I realized belatedly that it was much less important than that.
Players may not be on their knees nearly as often from now on, but don’t be surprised if many clubs’ finances are reduced to this state given the contempt they’ve shown their fans.