Taking the knee in sports: The meaning behind the powerful stance

11 June 2021, 16:35 | Updated: 13 July 2021, 12:17

England players took the knee at Euro 2020
England players took the knee at Euro 2020. Picture: PA

By Emma Clarke

Throughout the Euro 2020 tournament, England players took the knee to protest racism - despite previously being booed by fans for making a political statement on the field.

Taking the knee has long been a symbolic gesture for peaceful protesters, campaigning against racial violence and systemic racism.

Not only has it been prominent across many major sporting events, the gesture was also adopted during Black Lives Matter protests in response to George Floyd's murder last year.

Ahead of Euro 2020, it was confirmed that Gareth Southgate's squad planned to take the knee before kick-off at all their scheduled matches.

Here, we take a look into the origins of the poignant gesture and where it has been used.

Colin Kaepernick iconised taking the knee during the 2016 NFL national anthem protests
Colin Kaepernick iconised taking the knee during the 2016 NFL national anthem protests. Picture: Getty

What are the origins of taking the knee?

Used by American athletes in 2016, taking the knee was originally used in protest against police brutality and racism while the US national anthem played.

Colin Kaepernick, who at the time was the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, initiated the protests by sitting on the bench during the performance of the patriotic song.

"I am not going to get up to show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of colour," Kaepernick said.

He later took the knee instead of sitting on the bench, by way of showing respect for military veterans while taking a powerful anti-racism stance.

Kaepernick's actions were met with mixed reactions, with some seeing the protest as an "unpatriotic" affront to American troops. Others resented the politicisation of sports.

Sports brand Nike hired Kaepernick to be the face of its 30th campaign, which prompted a customer boycott.

The NFL then announced teams would be fined if any of their players participated in the protest.

Kaepernick's teammate Eric Reid commented: "We chose to kneel because it's a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy."

Donald Trump, who was president at the time, then called for players taking the knee to be fired.

During a 2017 campaign rally in Alabama, Trump said: "Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b**** off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.'"

Many players then refused to play at all, which was viewed as a direct resistance of Trump's presidency.

It wasn't until 2019 that NFL owners approved a policy that required all players to stand during the national anthem if on the field. Those who objected had to remain in the locker room.

Kaepernick was released after initiating the peaceful protests. His dismissal has prompted widespread outcry and calls for him to be reinstated, with many believing him to be on the best quarterbacks alive.

Why were England players taking the knee during Euro 2020?

In order to raise awareness and highlight racial inequality and discrimination, Premier League players and officials started taking the knee at football matches.

Gareth Southgate announced earlier this year that his team would continue to adopt the stance during Euro 2020, saying: "We feel more determined than ever."

Ahead of the tournament, some fans booed players who knelt before matches.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the "whole country" to get behind the team during the football tournament, he failed to condemn those booing.

An official spokesperson said on Friday, June 11: "The Prime Minister respects the right of all people to peacefully protest and make their feelings known about injustices.

"The Prime Minister wants to see everybody getting behind the team to cheer them on, not boo."

Home Secretary Priti Patel also claimed football fans had a right to boo the England team for taking the knee back in June, adding that the protests were "gesture politics".

Ms Patel said it was “all well to support a cause and make your voices heard” but with regards to the Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place across the UK, “the impact on policing... it was devastating”.

More recently, the Home Secretary has faced criticism after her response to the racist abuse Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho received after the Euro 2020 final.

She wrote on July 12: "I am disgusted that England players who have given so much for our country this summer have been subject to vile racist abuse on social media. It has no place in our country and I back the police to hold those responsible accountable."

England footballer Tyrone Mings slammed her response, writing on Twitter: “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.”

What did Scotland's captain say about the matter?

Although previously the head coach for Scotland said that the team would stand instead of taking the knee, the Scottish Football Association later released a statement which read: "The squad, coaching staff and backroom members will stand up to racism ahead of the Group D matches against Czech Republic, England and Croatia."

Captain Andy Robertson added: "It is important we continue to tackle the issue of racism and raise awareness of the need to change people's mindsets but also their behaviours.

"Prior to our World Cup qualifiers in March we spoke as a group and felt that taking a stand was the best way for us to show solidarity and also to reinforce the need for meaningful change in society."

Black Lives Matter protesters adopted the powerful gesture in response to George Floyd's murder
Black Lives Matter protesters adopted the powerful gesture in response to George Floyd's murder. Picture: PA

Where else has the symbolic gesture been used?

Beyond the NFL and football, the taking the knee symbol has also been used by Black Lives Matter protesters.

It is expected that some athletes may use the gesture during the Tokyo Olympics this year, despite the International Olympic Committee's ban.

IOC official Kirsty Coventry said it was "very concerned about the risk of politicisation of the athletes."

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" is banned from the Games.