The Government had a golden opportunity this week – with the potential reception for the England squad at No. 10 – to change its narrative on ‘taking the knee’ at a stroke and talk about racism in sport and the role social media plays in amplifying it instead. But they blew it.
As the abhorrent racist abuse became the English hangover from an incredible tournament, so too the early reminders that the ‘gesture politics’ label given to anti-racism protest was revealed for what it really was: a dog-whistle of encouragement to those motivated by hatred and division.
Athletes and sporting events have been a longstanding source of energy for politicians to capitalise on. The pretence is uncomfortable at best. From watching Boris Johnson awkwardly celebrate goals, talk like he knows the sport and inexplicably wear a football shirt on top of his shirt and tie, he’s looked as out of place as Tom Cruise watching the final at Wembley.
Sing while you’re winning
While they were winning, the team provided a self-congratulatory PR opportunity. Man-of-the-people Jacob Rees-Mogg even spouted the John Barnes rap in the Commons. It’s coming home, let’s “take back” football. Has anyone got a bus we could put that on? The footy lads will love this!
But the plot twist which ended the football 'stan' from No. 10 boiled down to the very issue the team had said they wanted to show unity against: England and Englishness is riven with racism. We spent so long creating a society where it was forced into the margins we thought it had gone away. It hadn’t: it was festering and has now been unleashed.
While their right to take the knee was respected, supporters who jeered while they did it were not criticised. It was Home Secretary Priti Patel who called taking the knee "gesture politics" and so it was her rank hypocrisy in criticising the vile racists that lit the fuse in England player Tyrone Mings, who summed it up perfectly.
You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens. https://t.co/fdTKHsxTB2— Tyrone Mings (@OfficialTM_3) July 12, 2021
After hints of a potential additional Bank Holiday if England won, attention turned to the possibility of a reception for the squad at No. 10.
Ah yes, the public love a nice bus tour, or celebratory handshakes like we’re mates with the squad. Johnson’s spokesperson said the PM would have been “OK” with players taking the knee if such an event happened too – cute.
Alas, it was not to be. Reports have since suggested that the FA had said if the team were to lose in the final a reception would not be happening.
I can’t help feel that this is a missed opportunity for the England players to have been the Lions the nation fell in love with during the tournament. Taking the knee outside the shiny door of No. 10, addressing the dog-whistler-in-chief, face-to-face – asking him exactly what he meant about the "watermelon smiles", "letterboxes" and "piccaninnies".
Would the team have even accepted an invitation this week?
I’d like to think that they absolutely would and that they would be prepared to discuss issues about racism, how to challenge social media platforms in tackling it and the power of sport to unite a nation and inspire youth audiences.
The hosts, however, would have found a reception this week more uncomfortable; reminded of the plot this journey has taken and the obvious ‘told you so’ that incidents have demonstrated.
For most of us, Gareth Southgate and the team have shown humility, empathy, clear values, a strong message and unity throughout the Euros. Literally everything you would want in the leaders and politicians of a country.
I wonder whether, faced with a better-prepared and consistent team of impressive communicators, clear on what they want to achieve in addition to their sporting efforts, this leaves No. 10 feeling less than world-leading and a little insecure about how such a reception would play out in their PR favour.
But it’s only a game, right? If only it were.
Rebecca Roberts is the founder of Thread & Fable and spent a decade working in Premiership Football and Olympic & Paralympic Sports
(Thumbnail credit: Getty)