Taking a knee: George Floyd’s death takes sport into a new era

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Proteas player Lungi Ngidi was criticised by some former players for taking the knee. Picture: Gallo images
Proteas player Lungi Ngidi was criticised by some former players for taking the knee. Picture: Gallo images


Yet another chapter in the book of racism in sport was written when Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Istanbul Basaksehir players and staff protested against an alleged racist incident during a recent Champions League match.

Players from both teams walked off the field at the Parc des Princes in Paris after fourth official Sebastian Coltescu was accused of using a racist term when identifying Basaksehir’s assistant coach, Cameroon legend Pierre Webó.

It was the first time both sides had walked off the field at that level, causing the game to be abandoned early in the first half.

It was completed the next day, with PSG winning 5-1.

Tottenham Hotspur coach José Mourinho, who is a two-time Champions League winner, said the match would become iconic: “A Champions League game stopped, but hopefully it will never happen again. It’s a very sad situation. Every form of racism has to be fought. It should never be accepted. I’m very sad because we don’t want that in football.”

Even though the incident seems less clear-cut than initially thought and the fourth official at the centre of it all received backing from John Barnes, who has been outspoken in the fight against racism, some conclusions can be drawn.

Brooklyn Nets players kneel during the national anthem before an NBA basketball game. Picture: Kim Klement-Pool / Getty Images
Pierre Webó (far right) wanted to know why Sebastian Coltescu (far left) called him a "negro".

Firstly, the struggle against racism in sport is far from over. Secondly, it is a struggle that not only players should wage, but one that should be taken up by all.

Former Liverpool player Barnes famously back-heeled a banana that was thrown at him in a league match in 1988, yet, 32 years later, racism was – and is – still an ongoing issue in international sport.

There is, however, some indication that the struggle has changed in that it has moved – in essence – from the back pages to the news pages.

Unfortunately, it took the tragic death of George Floyd to give the issue of racism a new urgency.

Floyd, who was black, was killed when white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for so long that he suffocated in Minnesota in the US in May, and his brutal death sparked worldwide outrage and weeks of protests against police brutality and anti-black violence.

Video footage showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, despite Floyd’s repeated cries that he could not breathe.

Sport aligned itself with the broader struggle against racism, which found itself being waged by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

This allowed sports that were traditionally removed from the debate about racism to join in, often led by an individual or a small group of people.

Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton was one such individual.

Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton led the calls to protect black lives. Picture: Bryn Lennon / Getty Images

The Mercedes driver took the question of discrimination, racism and inclusivity into F1 and had the majority of drivers kneeling before the start of races.

In an interview conducted shortly after he broke Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles, Hamilton was eager to talk about the issue.

“Away from F1, I’ll remember this period of my life as an awakening for society. The death of George Floyd sparked the renewed #BlackLivesMatter campaign and acted like a giant rock dropped in a pool of water.

“It created a ripple effect that has spread throughout the world. We now have to ensure those ripples don’t fade away.”

He said he had no intention of stopping raising the matter.

“I took risks using my voice and putting my head above the parapet and, in 2021, I intend to continue doing so.

“F1 needs to be more diverse and minorities need more opportunities. Your destination in life shouldn’t be determined by your colour, religion or where you’re from. We should all have the same opportunities.”

In the first week of this month, the US Olympic Committee (USOCP) said that it would not punish athletes who knelt or in some way demonstrated in support of racial and social justice for all human beings.

READ: English soccer players to keep taking the knee as ‘powerful symbol of solidarity’ against racism

Two American athletes were banned from the 1968 Olympics for demonstrating during the medal ceremony and, as recently as last year, USOCP CEO Sarah Hirshland placed US athletes Race Imboden and Gwen Berry on probation after they protested during the Pan Am Games.

In an about-turn, Hirshland said that she had made the wrong decision.

“In considering all that’s transpired on our journey to this point, I would be remiss not to address the experiences of Team USA athletes Dr John Carlos, Dr Thomas Smith, Gwen Berry and Race Imboden, whose peaceful and courageous protests were met with reprimands or indifference.

“It’s clear now that this organisation should have supported, instead of condemned, and advocated understanding instead of relying on previous precedents. For that, I apologise,” Hirshland said.

That the struggle against racism in sport is far from over was demonstrated by Millwall fans this month, who booed when the club’s players took the knee before their match against Derby. When Millwall faced Queens Park Rangers, the latter team’s director, Les Ferdinand – who is the only black director of football in England – said they had decided to stand arm-in-arm with Millwall’s players “in a show of solidarity for football’s fight against racism”.

Naby Keita
Liverpool Naby Keita kneels prior to the Uefa Champions League group play match. Picture: Lars Ronbog / Getty Images

But it was Floyd’s death that took sport into a new era. His killing incited strong support and solidarity from athletes and sports figures worldwide, with players across the English Premier League and Bundesliga protesting more peacefully by kneeling before kick-off in solidarity.

The English Premier League clubs turned out in their first 12 matches of the restarted season with the players’ names replaced by “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned above their squad numbers on their jerseys. 


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