A man takes a knee. What do you see?
Defiance of racial injustice, that’s what. At least if you’re a black footballer. You will almost certainly have heard of George Floyd, and will be well aware of America’s legacy from slavery.
You will almost certainly not have heard of Nick Timothy. But you will be alert to what lies behind words he wrote for Theresa May: “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.
And you are most unlikely to have read the Sewell Report cover to cover. But you will doubtless agree with one of its few findings unmauled by the usual suspects: “overt and outright racism persists in the UK”.
You are likely not to be particularly political, let alone party political. Nonetheless, you have another reason to take a knee before a game: the racist abuse you and your team-mates get on social media.
Now switch your perspective.
If you are a white fan, you may also see defiance of racial injustice. But you may not. Again, you will probably have heard of George Floyd – but may wonder what his murder has to do with an English football game.
You, too, won’t have heard of Nick Timothy. And you may not have picked up what underlies another sentence in that May speech: “if you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university”.
But claims of “white privilege” may have reached you and, if so, you’re likely to wonder what it is – since you will probably earn less, if you’ve come to watch a Premier League game, than any of the team’s black players (or those of any colour).
Like them, you will probably not be political. However, you will doubtless have seen pictures of the wave of statue toppling and defacement here in Britain, including that of Churchill’s in Parliament Square.
We admit that this sketch of contrasts is simplistic. For a start, if you are that black player, you are likely be kneeling yourself. As you will also be, if a professional footballer, whatever your colour. Many white players will be across the George Floyd story. And so on.
But we keep it simple to make a point. Which is not that everything depends on one’s point of view – though, certainly, these perspectives may be so different as to be irreconcilable.
Rather, it is that the whole business of taking a knee is divisive. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. Division can drive progress. After all, Churchill himself was a divisive figure, come to think of it.
But if a gain can be achieved without breaking the china, so much the better. Hence the more consensual feel of Kick Racism Out Of Football (later rebadged as Kick it Out.)
Now, “Kick it Out” is not uncontroversial; some players believe it to have been too passive, for example, in the aftermath of the racism and violence that marred an England-Serbia youth game in 2014.
However, the campaign comes without the primal instincts that kneeling, which many view as a gesture of submission, and clenched fists, which threaten violence, are capable of stirring up.
(The counter-argument is that black players themselves are taking a knee, which scarcely signals subservience, and that kneeling can be a gesture of repentance. But for many, those feral undertones will linger.)
As the European championships prepare to kick off, two possible futures lie ahead of us during the weeks ahead, and then in the football season that will follow.
The first is that the booing and counter-cheering fade away, and taking a knee does too, over time. Or else lingers as a formality stripped of real intent, as genuflection sometimes is in a church.
The second is that they don’t. The players keep kneeling. Some fans keep booing. Others keep cheering. The grandees of the football world – Gary Lineker, anyone? – suggest that the first lot are racists. Or at least that they are providing cover for prejudice.
The to-and-fro spills over into the new football season during which, unlike the last one, attendance should be back to normal. Which outcome do you think is more likely?
In short, the nation’s best-attended sport faces the possibility, to put it no more strongly, of crowds balkanising before football matches on political lines, if not quite ethnic ones.
With the booers demonised as racists. Some are. Most aren’t – they’re simply resistant, as we’ve seen, to a gesture which implies that they’re somehow responsible for racism. How will telling them that they are make that better?
Perhaps the consequences are containable – kettle-able, as the police might say, with a nod to one of their means of crowd control. And perhaps not.
After all, statue-toppling, flagrant anti-semitism, street violence, vigil arrests, kneeling police, and flag-toting convoys have all happened on our streets and road within the last year. That’s meant tough calls for the police, some of which were got wrong.
Not all of these are linked to the Black Lives Matter protests. But we’ve little doubt, after asking around, that both the footballing and political authorities worry that the controversy over footballers taking the knee before games is stoking rather solving Britain’s discontents.
The problem for both is that neither are in control. Nor are the national teams, nor the clubs – nor even the diversity-equality complex, to borrow the image that Eisenhower applied to the military and industry.
No, the decision to keep taking the knee is evidently being driven by the England players themselves. “We feel, more than ever, we are determined to take the knee throughout the tournament,” as Gareth Southgate put it earlier this week.
And so it is likely to be elsewhere when the new football season begins – not least because some 25 per cent of professional footballers are estimated to be black.
Understandably, Boris Johnson and Oliver Dowden will want to steer clear of the whole business.
The Prime Minister’s technique with woke, as with nearly everything else, is to poke his tousled head out of Downing Street, sniff the wind, cock an ear, lisen out for the noise of a consensus emerging – and wade in with a few soothing words.
That’s more or less what he did over the Churchill statue defacement. It may not be bold, but it’s certainly fly. And has helped to get him where he is today. Who are we to knock it?
He’s previously refused to take a knee himself, so showing a canniness that Keir Starmer lacked. But the last thing he will want to do now is say that those footballers taking a knee should well, um, look my friends, er, do something a bit, um, a bit more, well, you know.
Because players would undoubtedly tell him to stuff himself. Dowden may not evade his responsibilities so lightly. He’s the Culture Secretary, after all, so the subject’s his bag. Perhaps he and Johnson have been using Ollie Robinson to test the water.
Dowden is a pro and knows the ropes. If he isn’t working on reviving Kick It Out, or something like it, we would be surprised. The more time passes, the more pressure there will be on him to say that taking a knee is doing more harm than good.
But action speaks louder than words. What’s needed here is a plan; work with the clubs and the authorities; a new initiative; a bit of charm behind the scenes; patience; a touch of politicianly oil and balm.