So why not take a stand, Premier League players? Why not also speak directly to those in power? Imagine the impact of star players, who we know have a social conscience, taking the lead in raising concerns about oppressive regimes buying Premier League clubs, and directing these concerns at their own potential paymasters.
—BARNEY RONAY, The Guardian
IF THE NHL, a racially hegemonic sport (with its strong European contingent) can rise, albeit a little belatedly, to the challenge of confronting social justice, can the English Premier League (football) bring itself to take up the problem that is American owners who support Donald Trump. In a football continent where organizations such as “Kick It Out” have long (relative to other environs) worked to ensure an antiracist culture, where strict punishments are imposed on clubs and, indeed, entire national football associations for racist acts by players, administrators, coaching staff, and fans (and, most pertinent to this discussion, where the vast majority of players showed their support for the social justice movement in the United States by taking a knee before kick-off and clubs emblazoned “Black Lives Matter” on the back of their jerseys in the first game back after the pandemic), can the players—and not only the black players but, again, they may have to take the lead—turn their focus on those owners whose support for Trump goes entirely contrary to the politics of the Premier League? Since it is precisely these owner’s financial backing that made Trump’s ascent possible and unleashed a new level of racial toxicity on minorities.
Caught squarely in the crosshairs here are those players who draw their paychecks from the likes of Arsenal, Crystal Palace, and Manchester United, players who, United’s Marcus Rashford chief among them, showed themselves possessed of an acute “social conscience.” (During the pandemic, Rashford showed himself to be the footballer who rebuked the United Kingdom’s Conservative government for its failure to deliver food to hungry children. Rashford was, as he should have been, widely lauded for this.)1 Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke funded Trump’s inauguration to the tune of $1 million. One wonders if Arsenal’s Mesut Özil,2 outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy on the Uighurs, would be willing to make his opposition to Kroenke’s consorting with a leader who considers Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization” known, publicly.
I expect not, in part because Özil and Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City have both made public their support for the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a position that saw them come under attack from those opposed to Erdoğan’s dictatorial rule.3 After all, Özil (as well as Gundogan) was steadfastly silent when Erdoğan’s government issued an arrest for Turkish basketball player Enes Kanter (Boston Celtics) because of Kanter’s criticism of Erdoğan. We are left to conclude, then, that Özil is politically outspoken only addressing issues that pertain directly to his identity. His politics reveal themselves as predictable and narrowly identitarian; what we are dealing with then is not politics, in any substantive sense, but identitarianism. This makes his position on the Uighurs no less important but, for all that, reveals him as a man with a severely restricted or identitarian “social conscience.” Who among Arsenal’s array of players will step up and meet the demands of the moment? Will it be their Gabonese captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? Their German goalkeeper Bernd Leno? Or, will it be one of their black young guns? Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, or Bukayo Saka? How much do black lives matter to black players at Arsenal?
Crystal Palace’s co-owner Josh Harris spent some of his time advising the Trump administration. Will the perennially dissatisfied Wilfried Zaha—a talented player who perpetually accuses opponents of singling him out for special treatment, a player who is always agitating for a move away from Palace, a star winger who changed his national affiliation from England to Côte d’Ivoire—be the spokesperson who takes Harris to lead a Palace coup? Or will it the black Belgian striker Christian Benteke or the black English winger, Andros Townsend?4 What about Palace’s Serbian captain, Luka Milivojević?
Manchester United’s club director Ed Glazer is well known as a fundraiser for Trump. Since Rashford cut his political teeth on the pandemic, he might be best positioned to take up the cudgels in this new struggle. United’s white English captain, Harry Maguire, who is not averse to falling foul of the law, at least the Greek law, could put his contrarian streak to good use and lead the way for the United Against Trump movement. France’s Anthony Martial, Spain’s David de Gea and Juan Mata, and United’s host of black English players, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwould, as well as their white English teammate, Luke Shaw, would surely follow.
Are there any players opposed to taking the field against clubs that materially support Trump? Liverpool’s captain, Jordan Henderson, who rallied all the Premier League skippers and then the players in support Britain’s National Health System, presents himself as a logical leader. After all, if the pandemic has taught the world anything, it is that universal healthcare should be a right. A fundamental right. Minorities, as the pandemic revealed so starkly, are measurably more vulnerable to the health (and socioeconomic) ravages of the pandemic.
Which Premier League footballer, from this club or any other, is willing to bite the hand that feeds them?
And, while we’re at it, is it possible to imagine all international footballers boycotting the next World Cup in Qatar because of its ethnocentric monarchy? Or, Qatari labor practices as it pertains to the millions of migrant workers who are subject to appalling conditions? Extreme heat, the confiscation of passports, the poor living conditions? These, as we well know, are the self-same workers who are building the stadia and the other facilities to ensure that the World Cup takes place in the gas-and-oil-rich Qatar, a state with no real football history of which to speak. Why should the players not demand a full and accurate accounting of FIFA, the sport’s governing body, finances? What’s to stop the players from standing up for human rights the world over by putting the World Cup on hold?
When George Floyd was murdered, the late Rush Limbaugh, the high priest of white supremacy, could not defend Derek Chauvin. Rush Limbaugh, I repeat, as ardent and unreconstructed a racist as this country has thrown up over the centuries. And yet the state’s attack on black life has not abated in the time since.
Similarly, the white, right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson denounced the death of Adam Toledo.
Nip, at almost the exact moment that the jury in the Chauvin case found him guilty on all three counts, police in Columbus, Ohio, shot sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, an African American teenager in foster care, four times.5 She died shortly afterwards.
According to reports, Bryant, who was armed with a knife (which some say she dropped before she was shot), was involved in an altercation with another girl.
In the same situation, how many white teenagers—more precisely, suburban white teenagers—would have come to the same bloody end as Bryant?
In relation to the black body, the law of policing is inviolate: shoot first, shoot often. No force is “disproportionate” in relation to the black body.
Bryant was killed some twenty minutes before Chauvin’s conviction.
No one makes a better case for the abolition of policing more effectively, and viscerally, than the police themselves.
It needs to be said again: the police cannot be reformed.
In light of this ongoing police brutality, with protesters shot in Austin, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Kenosha, Wisconsin; I wonder, Ezra, how could any thinking person continue to support Trump? Even countenance voting for him, as more than seventy-four million did in the 2020 election?
However, just when I am on the verge of being appalled and disgusted, I remind myself that in this country it is important to never underestimate the depth and intensity of white hatred for the black body. One should never be shocked at a certain constituency of white America’s capacity to sustain itself through such hatred.
From the white supremacist rallies that took place all over the country in the summer of 2020, rallies in places such as Oneida, New York (a flotilla of Trump supporters wearing MAGA hats and waving American flags with goose-stepping gusto), to a white supremacist teenager understanding himself free to take black lives in the cause of protecting property. There is a snarling hatred in those white faces.
They hate us. Such a recognition is in no way new to you or me.
What Trump did (continues to do, even as he is out of office) is give white hatred presidential cover. In so doing, he has fueled this hatred. He has succeeded in elevating this hatred to a new pitch, a fevered pitch. So now we live, Nip, in a cauldron of white anger and resentment. Black America (as well as other minorities, Asians especially so in the wake of the pandemic) finds itself vulnerable, simultaneously afraid of white violence and motivated to act against this violence. Has Trump reached some ungodly plateau, where the white supremacist gods convene in order to decide our fate?
They murder us and then they, shamelessly, blame us for our anger.
It is this, my son, that I want to explain to all those Premier League footballers in the employ of Arsenal, Crystal Palace, and Manchester United. This is what their bosses fund. As much as Paris St. Germain, owned by the Qataris, are the beneficiaries of the exploitation and devastation of migrant lives; as much as Manchester City are built on money derived from a range of dubious capital ventures undertaken by the United Arab Emirates royal family.
There are no innocents here, my son. All are culpable.
Hatred of the black body is what Kroenke, Harris, and Glazer, through their various underwritings of Trump, fermented. It is this hatred that makes black life so disposable to the white supremacist mobs.
It is tempting to suggest that this pathological hatred of the black body confounds reason. However, such an argument overlooks the lived reality that racism in no way depends upon logic for its activation and sustenance. Racism is, in this way, an autoforce (or, at the risk of contradicting myself, it is an autologic). Racism is entirely capable of powering itself, and renewing itself, seemingly without end.
Why not hold the World Cup hostage to human rights? Could there be a better cause?
Why would footballers not want to test the system to the limits of their—and its—power?
Why would they not want to be an instrument for good (justice in its many forms) in the world and, in doing so, make common cause with athletes, all athletes, possibly, the world over?
Refusing to participate in games, especially those that are part of a global spectacle (World Cup, Champions League, the Euros, Africa Cup of Nations, and so on), might address the critique leveled by the Queens Park Rangers (QPR) director, Les Ferdinand. Black British and a former England international, Ferdinand explained the QPR players’ decision not to take a knee before their games in the Championship (the second tier of English football). For QPR and Ferdinand, taking a knee amounts to little more than an empty, superficial gesture. It performs, in the most pejorative sense, antiracism while doing little to nothing to effect structural change. Either in the game itself or society at large.6
Taking a knee as symbolic protest. Yet another reformist gesture.
For his part, Ferdinand is demanding sustainable, material change.
QPR, then, as scoring one against reformism.
QPR, bucking the trend, refusing the gestural as appropriate to the historic demands of the moment.
I doubt George Hill is a fan of English football, but Les Ferdinand should sign him up.
At the very least, Ferdinand should send Hill a QPR shirt.
Hill would look good in QPR’s blue and white hoops.
Why would the footballers not want to, if not take up singlehandedly, then stand in solidarity with other black athletes, align themselves with that famed Mexico City trio? Why would other athletes, especially in the wake of what George Hill’s Bucks did, not commit themselves to the same set of principles?
Footballers of the world unite. You have everything to lose.
Isn’t that the only condition under which politics should be conducted? In an earlier era, such a decision, such collective action, would have gone by an honorable name: “revolution.”
If only a black athlete could revive that prospect. Like John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
Like Peter Norman, the white Australian athlete ostracized by his national athletic federation—and many of his fellow-Australians—for supporting Carlos and Smith.
It is better to stand in solidarity with the protesting black bodies than acquiesce to racism. It is better go to your grave borne by honorable athletic comrades than to live a morally compromised life.
Will the Premier League throw up a Peter Norman?
I’m looking at you, Jordan Henderson. I’m asking you, my favorite Wearsider, to tap into the left-wing spirit of that old Scottish socialist whose statue stands proudly outside Anfield. He used to go by the name of “Bill Shankly.” “Football is not a matter of life or death,” Shanks said, “it is much more important than that.”
He stood with Scouser workers, did Shanks.
Who will you stand with, Hendo? The moment for decision is now, Jordan.
We pride ourselves, we Liverpool FC fans, on being the “club of the people.” Tough, working class, Liverpudlians, we stood against Thatcher and her dastardly anti-union politics. We speak a distinct, and distinctly radical, political language. Albeit in an accent non-Scousers find impenetrable.
Remember Robbie Fowler’s support for the stevedores? He was fined for it. He cared not a jot. A proud, native son of Liverpool, is Robbie, doing his bit to let the dockworkers on Merseyside know that they were not alone in their struggle.
Let’s do the right thing, Hendo. We’re looking to you. You are heir to a venerable radical tradition.
The moment in history may have arrived when we can remain the “club of the people” only if the captain of Liverpool F.C. exceeds our orbit and agitates on behalf of exploited migrant labor in Doha, or any else in the world, for that matter. Workers of the world, unite, you have everything to gain. Bill Shankly was born in Scotland, but at his political core he was a Scouser: anti-authoritarian, a champion of and for the working class.
For now, Jordan, bringing attention to exploitation of foreign labor and the denigration of human life in Qatar will do.
As a start.7