'Let fans boo taking the knee' demands free speech group

Fans MUST be allowed to boo players who take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, claims Free Speech Union as they lobby FA to stop supporters from being banned by clubs

  • The Free Speech Union says if players make the gesture, then fans can boo them
  • All Premier League teams take the knee to support the fight against racism 
  • However in lower divisions, there is an increasing divide over whether to do it 

Football fans who boo players taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter should not be banned by clubs, a free speech group has demanded.

In a letter to the Football Association, the Free Speech Union insist that if players are free to make the gesture, then fans must be free to disagree with them.

The FSU argued in the letter to the FA’s interim chairman Peter McCormick that the ‘simplest solution’ to an issue which continues to split football and other sports, would be to stop players taking the knee at all on the grounds that it shows support for a political cause and not a moral one, something banned in football law. 

There is increasing divide over whether to take the knee before games in lower divisions

And extending that argument, the FSU said players who advertise their support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) by taking a knee should ‘face similar penalties’ to booing supporters.

The FA insist taking the knee is an apolitical stand against discrimination, yet a list of high-profile footballers — among them Les Ferdinand, Wilfried Zaha and Britt Assombalonga — have started to rail against the gesture, which they believe has become devalued and is covering up a lack of real change in anti-racism policies.

On Saturday, more players in the top two divisions didn’t kneel before kick-off than the concerted support shown for the gesture when it was first conceived last summer post-lockdown.

General secretary of the FSU, Toby Young, wants the FA, whose president is Prince William, to issue guidelines for clubs ahead of the return to stadiums later this season or at the start of the next campaign.

In the letter, he said: ‘If the position of the FA is that it is perfectly legitimate for players to express their support for BLM in the stadium by taking the knee it should make it clear that it is also acceptable for fans to express their feelings about this political movement.

‘If fans want to boo players taking the knee — or applaud, come to that — they should face no negative repercussions. From a free speech point of view, it cannot be fair or reasonable that people on the pitch are allowed to express their political views, but those in the stands are not.’ 

All Premier League teams still take the knee in support of the fight against racism

The FSU believe that the FA’s insistence that expressing support for Black Lives Matter is an apolitical matter is ‘untenable’.

Young said: ‘For instance, the GoFundMe page of Black Lives Matter UK, the nearest thing the movement has to an official face, says the organisation wants to “dismantle … capitalism” and is developing “strategies for the abolition of the police”.’

The FSU’s call to back supporters’ right to protest follows an incident in which a season ticket-holder at a Championship club was briefly suspended for booing players taking the knee, while fans of Cambridge United have also been banned from their club’s ground for voicing their disapproval.

Wilfried Zaha says he will no longer be taking a knee as he finds the practice ‘degrading’

Cambridge executives had banned supporters for booing players before a League Two match against Colchester in December when fans had briefly been allowed back to matches — and the club say they would do exactly the same again.

Ian Mather, the Cambridge chief executive, said: ‘We took the decision then and we’d do the same thing again. It’s not a freedom of speech issue because I’m a passionate advocate of freedom of speech. Write to us if you’re a fan and you disagree with taking the knee. But for us, very simply it’s an expression against racism and booing it is unacceptable.’

But Young is demanding that the FA now needs to show ‘leadership’ because the gesture is shrouded in so much controversy.

He said: ‘As one of the oldest and most prestigious sporting associations in the world, the FA should uphold the principle of fair play.

Brentford and Bournemouth confirmed they will no longer kneel before their matches

‘That means that if you are going to give players the benefits of the doubt and allow that the gesture is simply a show of support for the moral cause, not the political one, you should extend the same latitude to the booing fans.’

Opposition to the practice — it started at the end of last season after the death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of American police — has been growing within football.

Last November, both QPR and Middlesbrough stopped taking the knee with Boro striker Assombalonga saying: ‘Taking the knee will not bring about change in the game — action will.’ This month Brentford and Championship rivals Bournemouth confirmed their players will also no longer kneel before matches, with Brentford striker Ivan Toney protesting that players feel like ‘puppets’ while the authorities fail to take real action against discrimination.

The Free Speech Union insists that fans should be able to boo players if they take the knee

And last week Crystal Palace star Zaha became the first top flight player to say he will no longer take a knee as he feels it is ‘degrading’.  

The Premier League and EFL both say taking a knee is a player-led initiative, though Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings and Troy Deeney from Watford, long-time advocates of anti-racism programmes, are thought to be in talks over changing the direction of the campaign.

However, a cooling of support for taking the knee has come at a time when racist abuse of footballers appears to be on the up. A number of high-profile stars, among them Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Antonio Rudiger and Raheem Sterling, have all reported being on the receiving end of a barrage of abuse online.   

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