Dan Hodges: Football's Black Lives Matter own goal is gift to racists

DAN HODGES: It’s tragic – but football’s Black Lives Matter own goal is a gift to racists

You’ve heard of Black Lives Matter. But you’ve probably never heard of Fans For Diversity.

The grassroots football supporters campaign – a joint project run by the Football Supporters’ Association and the Kick It Out alliance – hasn’t had its name or slogan prominently displayed on the back of Premier League matchday shirts.

There have been no stars or officials proudly taking a knee at kick-off in support of their crusade to ‘overcome exclusion or a perception of exclusion’ within the game.

Footballers have been taking a knee before Premier League matches in support of the worldwide  Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in the US

Where Black Lives Matter UK aims to ‘dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures that disproportionately harm black people in Britain and around the world’, Fans For Diversity’s more modest objective is to ensure that when it comes to ‘pies and pakoras; Bovril and beer; a rainbow flag? It matters not once we’re in the stadium, we’re all fans with the same goal’.

Last week was the week Black Lives Matter blew it. Propelled into the nation’s consciousness by the brutal US police killing of George Floyd, the British wing of the campaign imploded in a series of self-inflicted blunders.

The ridiculous demand to ‘defund the police’, followed by an infantile attack on Sir Keir Starmer for not endorsing their call. Further revelations about their extreme Left-wing agenda. 

And allegations of antisemitism following the distribution by one of their affiliates of images of a racist mural, coupled with the inflammatory claim ‘British politics is gagged of the right to criticise Zionism’.

Suddenly celebrities, corporates and organisations who had been queuing up to take a knee in support of the campaign were up on their feet and heading for the hills.

The BBC hurriedly announced it was banning its presenters from wearing BLM badges on air. Hertfordshire police warned its officers against taking a knee at protest rallies. 

The England and Wales Cricket Board, which had agreed to put independent BLM branding on players’ shirts for the Test series with the West Indies, rushed out a statement that ‘our support of that message is not an endorsement, tacit or otherwise, of any political organisation’.

But it was the Premier League endorsement that secured Black Lives Matters their biggest coup. And it’s been within football that the most significant – and potentially dangerous – backlash has occurred.

Racism has been a scar on the national game for decades. Vicious abuse of players. Violent abuse of BAME fans. The use of football grounds as unofficial recruiting offices for the National Front and the British National Party.

But to their credit, in recent years the football authorities and supporters groups have been doing serious work in rooting out racism. 

Which makes even more inexplicable the decision to trample over initiatives such as Fans For Diversity in the rush to hand Black Lives Matter an estimated £25 million in free advertising.

Racism has been a problem in football for several years, with players such as Raheem Sterling (pictured) being the subject of racist abuse in UK grounds

Players wore ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirts for the first few matches of the Premier League resumption, with the BLM movement receiving around £25million in free advertising 

I spent the past few days trying to understand just how that decision was taken. And it’s clear that what has been framed as a move by the Premier League to endorse the Black Lives Matter campaign was in fact the result of player power.

The drive to place Black Lives Matter on the backs of shirts was at the request of the Premier League’s Black Participants Advisory Group, chaired by Doncaster Rovers manager Darren Moore, and supported by Watford captain Troy Deeney and Leicester captain Wes Morgan. 

It was Deeney and his partner who designed the Black Lives Matter logos that are due to be worn on Premier League shirts for the remainder of the season.

They also had backing from the influential but unofficial Captain’s Group, led by Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, which has grown in significance during discussions over Project Restart, the League’s strategy for completing the season in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

It was at meetings to discuss these plans that the shirt rebranding and taking a knee demonstrations were discussed.

But consultation within the wider football community appears to have been minimal. The Football Supporters’ Association was unable to confirm any significant discussion had taken place over the plan. 

Kick It Out chairman Sanjay Bhandari said his organisation was ‘made aware of the dialogue’ though they were happy to support the move. 

Kick It Out chairman Sanjay Bhandari said his organisation was ‘made aware of the dialogue’ to take a knee and put Black Lives Matters on the back of shirts though they were happy to support the move

He added: ‘We do not endorse or comment upon the broader political or other ambitions of any organisations claiming ownership of the Black Lives Matter movement.’ 

Premier League sources stated supporters’ groups had the plan explained to them at a scheduled ‘structural dialogue meeting’.

The drive from black – and white – players and managers to express solidarity with a high-profile anti-racist campaign is laudable. Other sports are following their lead.

But the reality is that being seen to so closely align with such a radical and undisciplined organisation as Black Lives Matters has blown up in football’s face.

Attempts to draw the vital distinction between the movement and its message were absent at the start of the campaign.

The wider football family has split, with some teams, players and pundits being forced to distance themselves from the BLM group.

And the decision to embrace the Black Lives Matter organisation has risked opening the door to precisely those racist elements the game has made such strenuous efforts to drive from its ranks.

As players from Manchester City and Burnley were parading the Black Lives Matter message at the Etihad Stadium two weeks ago, a banner proclaiming ‘White Lives Matter’ flew above the ground. 

The reaction to the BLM movement in football has not all been positive – a plane carrying the banner ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ flew over the Etihad Stadium for Burnley’s trip to Manchester City in June

The sponsor, an English Defence League-supporting Burnley fan, was swiftly given a life ban from his club and sacked from his job.

But the damage was done. In 2001, Burnley was the scene of a vicious race riot provoked by BNP members. In the 2005 General Election, the BNP candidate came within 200 votes of the Conservatives. Unemployment is significantly higher in Burnley than the national and Lancashire averages, as are overall benefit claim rates.

In January, a charity established to help tackle educational underachievement in black pupils highlighted Burnley in its decision to switch its focus to underachieving white pupils.

Taking one of the biggest symbols of traditionally white-working class identity in a town such as Burnley and placing ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back, isn’t just handing the Black Lives Matter organisation £25 million in free advertising.  

It’s handing a gift to those who seek to make the simplistic, divisive argument ‘see, we warned you. It’s black lives that are the priority now, not white lives’.

The fight against racism is not a simple one. If it was, there would no longer need to be a fight at all. Slogans, however powerful, are not enough. Nor are knee-jerk reactions, however well meaning.

Football has been doing excellent work rooting out racism through patient, unflashy, grass-root-led initiatives such as Fans For Diversity and Kick It Out. That’s where players, managers and officials should be focusing their efforts.

Last week, Black Lives Matter blew it. The fight against racism in football – and wider society – cannot be allowed to go the same way.

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