Boris Johnson finds himself in a quandary over racism and sports

By Mark Landler

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain has laboured to distance himself from Donald Trump since the change of power in Washington, and not without success. His first face-to-face meeting with President Joe Biden last month went smoothly: The two found common ground on climate change, and Johnson labelled Trump’s successor a “big breath of fresh air”.

But now Johnson finds himself back in crosswinds of the kind Trump used to stir up. His refusal to condemn crowds who booed England’s national soccer team for kneeling to protest racial injustice carries a distinct echo of Trump’s targeting of NFL players who knelt for the same cause in the United States.

One of his Cabinet ministers criticized the players for engaging in “gesture politics”, while his spokesperson said of the jeering spectators that the prime minister “fully respects the right of those who choose to peacefully protest and make their feelings known.”

In Johnson’s case, it was less what he said than what he failed to say. But in England, as in the United States, the mix of sports, politics and racial justice has proved volatile, boomeranging on a prime minister whose populist instincts on cultural issues have often served him well.

England’s inspiring run in the European soccer championship captivated the nation. When three of its Black players were subjected to racist abuse after their crushing loss last weekend in the final, it put Johnson’s silence and the gibes of other Conservative politicians under a harsh spotlight. Suddenly, they were on the wrong side of a team that symbolized England’s racial diversity.

“This was the Trump playbook, and it worked for Trump until George Floyd,” said Frank Luntz, an American pollster, referring to the killing of an unarmed man by the police last year in Minneapolis. That crime ignited enormous protests against racism and police violence, overwhelming Trump’s campaign to fire football players who refused to stand during the national anthem.

Luntz, who has advised many Republican candidates, is now working with the Center for Policy Studies, a London research institute with historic ties to the Conservative Party, to survey voter attitudes in Britain. A classmate of Johnson’s at Oxford University, Luntz rejects the comparisons of the prime minister to Trump. (The better analogue, he said, is Ronald Reagan.)

While Trump eventually dropped the NFL campaign, Johnson is in full-fledged retreat. Under questioning by the opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, this week in Parliament, a rattled prime minister insisted he wholeheartedly supported the England team. “I support them in the way they show support with their friends who face racism,” Johnson added.

That did not mollify Starmer, who declared, “The government has been trying to stoke a culture war, and they have realized they are on the wrong side. And now they hope that nobody has noticed.”

The bigger threat to Johnson comes not from politicians but the players, some of whom have struck back at the eruption of racist gibes on social media after the team lost to Italy in a penalty shootout. Bukayo Saka, one of three young Black players who missed their kicks, posted on Twitter that “there is no place for racism or hate of any kind in football or in any area of society.”

Tyrone Mings, a defender who is Black, drew a direct link between the abuse and the government, tweeting, “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

His reference was to Johnson’s home secretary, Priti Patel, who said the team’s practice of kneeling was “gesture politics” and refused to condemn fans for jeering it. Lee Anderson, a Conservative Member of Parliament who was elected in 2019 in a surge of pro-Brexit support for Johnson’s party, vowed not to watch England games as long as the players knelt.

There are several reasons for Johnson to tread carefully. England’s team represents the nation, not the interests of wealthy private owners, like a typical NFL franchise. England’s players sing ‘God Save the Queen’  and kneel for only a few moments before kickoff. That makes them less vulnerable to charges of being unpatriotic than players sitting out the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Most important, under its manager, Gareth Southgate, the England team has found rare success on and off the field. It reached the first final of a major tournament in 55 years, vanquishing Germany and Denmark. And its players have used their fame effectively in pursuit of social justice — completing a decades-long transformation in the team’s image from the days in which some viewed it uncomfortably as symbolizing a strain of English nationalism linked to the right.

All of this left Johnson wrong-footed. Only a few months ago, he stridently opposed plans to form an elite European super-league, presenting himself as a champion of soccer’s working-class fans. Now, though, Johnson’s gestures — wearing an England “Three Lions” jersey or flying an English flag outside No. 10 Downing St. — struck many as belated and inauthentic.

“It’s confused the Tories; they don’t know how to run with this,” said John M. Williams, a sports sociologist at the University of Leicester, referring to the governing Conservatives. “They have their own right-wing constituency, so they feel they have to go after the taking of the knee. But they’re afraid that the England team is doing politics better than they are.”

As in the United States, Williams said, social issues in Britain are part of a deeper debate — between a liberal, inclusive, multiracial society and its opposite. “Weirdly,” he said, “the England national team is at the heart of this debate”.

-New York Times


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