For the first time since June 2020, Premier League (PL) clubs will no longer be taking the knee before every match. The gesture will now happen only at select matches, such as cup finals. Whether this decision is good or bad is up for debate. What has become clear is that taking the knee, at least for the players, is losing significance.

What the players say

Initially, the symbolic gesture was inspired by the death of George Floyd. Taking the knee was therefore a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racism. And this is still necessary. Well, sort of. At the start, the knee felt like a genuine gesture to combat racism in football and society, initiated by the players. Now, kneeling feels driven by what looks right, rather than what is right. Seeing 22 players taking the knee is still visually effective, of course. But after two years, the original meaning and impact of this gesture have diminished.

Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace’s talisman, shares this sentiment. In February 2021, he stood instead of knelt, arguing that with or without the knee, racial abuse will continue. Newcastle’s Callum Wilson agrees, saying: ‘Doing it week-to-week, just because it’s something we’ve been told to do, I think it’s probably faded and lost its impact.’ Wilson and Zaha are not alone in thinking this.

Outside the PL, more than a third of English Football League clubs (EFL) no longer perform the gesture. Not everyone agrees, though. Both Rio Ferdinand and West Ham’s Michail Antonio affirm the importance of taking the knee to help educate young people. According to ex-England defender Rio Ferdinand it: ‘sparks conversation and is an opportunity to educate the next generation and educate ignorance.’

There is no straightforward consensus within the professional football community on whether kneeling should stop or continue. Most, however, now argue that the gesture should either be done sporadically or not at all, exemplified by the decisions of the EFL and PL clubs.

Did the gesture curb racism?

The verdict is in but the results are mixed. Let’s start with the positives first. Kick It Out reports a 13 per cent decrease in PL racial abuse and a 38 per cent fall in reports on social media. However, this is where the positives stop. Grassroots football saw a 41 per cent rise in racism cases with a further 14 per cent rise reported in EFL.

Interestingly, where you find less taking of the knee (in grassroots and EFL), there is a corresponding growth in racial abuse reports. On the other hand, where you find more kneeling (in the PL), you find declining reports. Statistics should never be taken at face value, but preliminary conclusions can certainly be drawn on the impact of taking the knee on racist behaviour. On the surface, at least, it seems that the gesture has been beneficial in helping to stimy racism.

Having said that, fan-on-fan racism is still rife. According to a YouGov poll, one in four ethnic minority football fans have been racially abused online and a third have personally experienced racist abuse in football stadiums. There is a notable lack of safety for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) fans, with one in eight fans saying they would not attend a match due to fears of racial harassment.

So, what does all this seemingly conflicting information suggest? Tacitly, that the situation is improving but nowhere near resolved. Despite an 8 per cent drop in racism reports overall, the improvement is only minimal. This, however, is unsurprising given how ingrained and multifaceted racism in football has become.

Why and how the gesture is improving reports is unclear. One possible explanation is that it acts as a mental signal for fans to be more aware of what they do and say. But racism is still active at stadiums. It could be that fans feel encouraged by other supporters being racist, knowing there will be no repercussions. After all, being in sync with the crowd helps create a sense of anonymity as well as invincibility. Racist behaviour also becomes more likely if fans have internal racial tension that they are consciously having to repress. In this case, a football match becomes the perfect setting to vent all that pent-up tension.

To kneel or not to kneel?

I would argue that taking the knee remains vital to tackling racism in football. Despite the progress made, young people need to be aware that ours is still a race-based society. Maybe the responsibility of tackling racism shouldn’t befall footballers, but in the absence of action from those in power, the burden is theirs for now.

Taking the knee is a powerful visual aid in teaching anti-racism. However, it isn’t flawless. As John Barnes put it:’Is taking the knee going to change someone who’s racially biased?’ No, probably not.

The gesture alone won’t necessarily pierce someone’s bubble of ignorance. Those who are prejudiced will likely remain so with or without the knee. This, however, was never its purpose. The action was intended to show allyship and send a strong anti-racist message. By all indicators, it has done just that.

Taking the knee may not be the end solution, but it sure is the first big step in curing the epidemic that is racism in football — and elsewhere.

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