Football News

Black Lives Matter: The cause footballers are taking the knee for, from Marcus Thuram to Mario Balotelli

By Will Hall

Black Lives Matter in football

Published: 12:15, 3 June 2020 | Updated: 23:22, 20 February 2022

On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died in police custody in Minneapolis. His death has so far led to a murder charge against one of the officers involved.

He was unarmed, clearly distressed and alerting officers to the fact he could not breathe as he lay handcuffed face-down in the street, at one point pinned by three officers applying pressure to his neck, torso and legs. Yet, footage shows the since-fired police officer Derek Chauvin continued to hold his knee on George Floyd’s neck. According to the criminal complaint, he did so for more than eight minutes.

  • Since George Floyd’s death, another black man named David McAtee has died after he was shot by Louisville police.
  • A report by the US Department of Justice in October 2018 found that “when police initiated the contact, blacks (5.2 percent) and Hispanics (5.1 percent) were more likely to experience the threat or use of physical force than whites (2.4 percent).”
  • According to official US Census Bureau figures, African-Americans made up 13.4% of the population but accounted for 23.4% of the 1,004 fatal shootings by police in 2019.
  • In the UK, figures released in 2018 suggested the London Metropolitan Police were four times more likely to use force against black people than against white people.

Chauvin, a 44-year-old white man, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The Floyd family’s lawyer has called for a charge of first-degree murder and the arrest of the other three officers dismissed along with Chauvin in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

The outrage among the Black community and others who stand against systemic racial injustice has been expressed in protests across the US. Black Lives Matter marches are also taking place worldwide and the tragedy has been met by gestures of solidarity in top-level football.

Justice For George Floyd

In the Bundesliga on Saturday, Schalke and USA midfielder Weston McKennie wore the message ‘Justice for George’ on his captain’s armband. A day later, Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi both revealed the same text on undershirts after each scored in Borussia Dortmund‘s win against Paderborn.

McKennie said after the game that he was asked to remove the message by the referee.

“I was like, ‘I’m not taking it off’,” he told Forbes.

“There’s a rule in the league that you can’t make political statements. But I mean, if you really, really look at this as a political statement, then I don’t know what to tell you.

“The league and everyone [in soccer] always preaches ‘say no to racism’. So I didn’t think that there would be a problem. If I have to take the consequences to express my opinion, to express my feelings, to stand up for what I believe in, then that’s something that I have to do.”

Because the death of George Floyd is the latest tragic example illustrating a broader issue, there were other associated acts of protest invoked during the latest Bundesliga gameweek. After scoring for Borussia Monchengladbach against Union Berlin, Marcus Thuram went down on one knee and bowed his head.

Fifa’s Laws of the Game prohibits players from displaying “political, religious, personal slogans, statement[s] or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer logo” during matches and the German Football Association said it will investigate the cases involving Hakimi, McKennie and Sancho.

However, in an accompanying statement the organisation’s president, Fritz Keller, said he was “proud of them.” Gianni Infantino, president of Fifa, has since issued his own statement, which read: “For the avoidance of doubt, in a FIFA competition the recent demonstrations of players in Bundesliga matches would deserve an applause and not a punishment.”

Chairman of anti-racism organisation Kick it Out Sanjay Bhandari called for “leniency” and, as the Premier League prepares to resume in mid-June, suggested more players should consider following the example of Thuram.

“I’m not sure how you can sanction Marcus Thuram,” Bhandari said. “I don’t think he’s done anything wrong. He’s just taken a knee.”

“I wonder if that’s the thing I would encourage if players want to protest. If you score a goal and take a knee could everyone do that? Not just the black players. The white players too – everyone.

“Racism’s not about black players or brown fans. It’s about all of us. Racism corrodes society and we’re all hurt by it. Everyone should want to demonstrate their solidarity and disgust.

“I would like to encourage the players to protest if they want to but I would also like to encourage them to do it in a way that doesn’t expose them to unnecessary sanction.

“If they could do that by taking a knee, if every player did that, it would be quite a powerful message. I would be interested to hear what the authorities thought of that, whether it would constitute a breach of the rules. To me, that is about demonstrating solidarity.”

Why Premier League teams are taking the knee

Whether we will see players do so in games is uncertain, but several Premier League teams have already taking the knee in training sessions.

Liverpool, Newcastle United and Chelsea have used the gesture to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Elsewhere, Mario Balotelli used his personal platform to spread awareness. The former Manchester City and Liverpool striker has been subjected to racist abuse on multiple occasions and was even yellow-carded for reporting one case to a Ligue 1 referee mid-game last season.

His pose pays tribute to two iconic acts of protest against racial oppression from sporting history, one contemporary and one that took place over half a century ago. With his raised fist, he is performing the Black Power salute, which became a symbol of defiance when John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the podium at the 1968 Olympics.

The act of dropping to one knee, emulated also by the players and teams mentioned above, is of a much more recent origin.

During a 2016 pre-season game for the San Francisco 49ers, NFL star Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem, which is played before every sporting event in America and during which those present are encouraged to stand. Kaepernick later began kneeling and on the first occasion was joined by teammate Eric Reid.

Kaepernick explained the reasoning behind this peaceful act of protest: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.

Kaepernick was later joined by teammates Eli Harold and Eric Reid.

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed… If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

Kaepernick’s career has suffered as a result of his protest. He has been a free agent since opting out of his contract with the 49ers in 2017.

Black Lives Matter

Most strongly associated with the recent protests is activist group Black Lives Matter, “whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

The movement was founded in 2013 when George Zimmermann was acquitted of murder after shooting teenager Trayvon Martin. However, writer Jelanni Cobb notes in a New Yorker profile: “Black Lives Matter didn’t reach a wider public until the following summer, when a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson.”

Journalist Wesley Lowery summed up the impact the killing of Mike Brown had, and subsequent Ferguson unrest, in a Guardian long-read: “The social justice movement spawned from Mike Brown’s blood would force city after city to grapple with its own fraught histories of race and policing. As protests propelled by tweets and hashtags spread under the banner of Black Lives Matter and with mobile phone and body camera video shining new light on the way police interact with minority communities, America was forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong. Even if you believe Mike Brown’s own questionable choices sealed his fate, did Eric GarnerJohn CrawfordTamir RiceWalter ScottFreddie Gray, and Sandra Bland all deserve to die?”

Along with George Floyd, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford highlighted the stories of two other recent victims.

“I know you guys haven’t heard from me in a few days,” he wrote on social media.

“I’ve been trying to process what is going on in the world. At a time I’ve been asking people to come together, work together and be united, we appear to be more divided than ever.

“People are hurting and people need answers. Black lives matter. Black culture matters. Black communities matter.

“We matter. #justiceforgeorgefloyd #justiceforahmaudarbery #justiceforbreonnataylor”

Armaud Arbery was shot dead in February 2020 as he ran through a Brunswick neighbourhood. It was over two months before charges were brought against father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael, both of whom are white. Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, said he thought Mr Arbery looked like a suspect in a series of recent break-ins, according to a police report.

The other victim Rashford references is Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was shot dead by police in her home in March 2020. Officers entered as part of a drugs investigation and the police claimed they were returning fire after an officer was shot and injured. Ms Taylor’s boyfriend later said he fired in self defence as the officers did not announce themselves. In a subsequent lawsuit, her mother claims the suspect the police were actually looking for was already in custody.

Check the replies on social media, and you may notice one common response from some users is to say ‘all lives matter.’ However, in 2015 Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza explained why this is unhelpful to their cause.

“I’ll say that changing Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter is not an act of solidarity,” she said.

“What it is is a demonstration of how we don’t actually understand structural racism in this country. When we say All Lives Matter, that’s a given. Of course, we’re all human beings – we all bleed red – but the fact of the matter is some human lives are valued more than others, and that’s a problem.”

To find out more about the Black Lives Matter movement, you can visit their website.