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Show some respect! ‘The booing of players taking a knee at Sunderland is shameful’

Opposition players have chosen to take a knee before kick-off at the Stadium of Light, and have been booed as a result. We need to show the world that we are better than this.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

I don’t want to have to write this article. It seems like I’ve been writing it every few months, in various forms, for over a year. I hoped that after the Euros crystalised the issue, it might not be necessary. Yet here we are again.

What more can I as a writer write, what more can we as a fanbase do, to help this vocal minority of our fellow Sunderland supporters to see that, in booing players who choose to take a knee before matches at the Stadium of Light and away from home, their protests are not just misguided, but harmful to our club and people in our community?

That our own players have chosen not to join their opponents in choosing to kneel in solidarity with the victims of racism in football and wider society is entirely for them. Some in the game and beyond have questioned whether such gestures are of any value when it in itself does little to diminish the impact of the racism that affects actual black people’s lives.

So I’ll be generous in assuming that this is the reason they have only intermittently demonstrated their solidarity alongside their opponents since the gentle protest amongst footballers spread last season, from its origins in the NFL and the Bundesliga in 2017, to become a ubiquitous feature of football. I hope that the reason isn't a fear of the Sunderland crowd’s reaction.

But, for all the best reasons and absolutely none of the fabricated motivations ascribed to them by the haters, this is the simple peaceful gesture that very many players in England and around the world choose, in good faith, to make.

The disrespect shown by those who boo is, for me, utterly intolerable.

I’ve listened to the arguments, in public and in private. I’ve mulled over the most effective way to phrase appeals to our collective better nature. Is it best to ignore them altogether? Are these people actually looking for the reaction - is this part of the game of (to borrow a horrible far-right Americanism) “owning the libs”? Whatever the moral rights and wrongs may be, on a practical level is the taking of the knee ultimately feeding the divisiveness that blights our society?

But my answer to these questions always comes in the form of another question; what’s the alternative? It isn't for me to tell professional footballers who work in an industry that is demonstrably racist - from the grassroots to stands through the dressing rooms and the boardrooms - that they’re doing it all wrong, albeit for the right reasons.

I’ve also read with pride and admiration accounts of fellow fans, like writer Giles Mooney from A Love Supreme, who’ve turned and looked the booers behind them in the eye, clapping until they stop booing, showing that solidarity trumps hate. I’ve spoken to members of the Red & White Army committee who’ve told people seated near to them to pipe down, risking their own safety in the process. I know that the matter has been raised with the club by the fan group this week, and we’ll wait and see their response.

On a personal level, I now find myself anxious about my personal response to anyone around me who might boo when my son and I get back into the stands on Saturday for the first time since last February.

I guess I will also have to try to explain to an 11-year-old why the Wycombe are following the superstars he watched this summer in taking the knee at 3pm, whilst the players he walked out alongside as mascot the last time we were in the ground side are standing by.

I’m a pretty placid kind of person - a diplomat and peacemaker rather than an agitator. But my antiracism is deeply ingrained, it was a part of how I was raised, and I have an intolerance of intolerance that motivates me in my writing and in my everyday work as a trade unionist and educator.

We do need to keep talking and trying to build bridges with those who’re following the crowd, but we also need to be resolute in the face of the extremist far-right hardcore - online and offline - that is driving this behaviour. The outrage on social media on Tuesday after a picture of a set of neo-fascists holding an anti-refugee banner outside the Stadium of Light was posted by some Newcastle fans was genuine and heartfelt.

Sunderland social media is a vipers’ nest of hot takes and faux outrage that often gets personal and nasty, the fan forums are a swamp of lies, thinly veiled racism and misinformation that often crosses the line of libel and defamation, but the discord between the booers and the active anti-racists in the stands has the potential to spill over into actual violence if this boil of mutual loathing is not lanced soon.

It also has the potential to drive young fans and young players away from our club at a time when we need to lock them into a vision of a club with Premier League standards across the board.

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

We really don’t want fighting in the stands, that would absolutely be the worst of all worlds and something we have to do everything possible to avoid. But it can’t just be left to individual fans to show restraint and bite their lips when confronted in person with folk who simply cannot or will not desist from this embarrassing performance - the club must act and lead, showing supporters that they are not sitting on the fence on this issue.

Yes, we should keep talking to our friends, family and neighbours about this issue, explaining in the same way as Gareth Southgate did this summer the true meaning of taking a knee and the impact that the booers have on footballers and the wider community.

But this matter requires proper leadership from those with real power and influence over fans, not merely pleading words of concern from fanzine writers and podcasters. Sunderland AFC has stayed silent on this matter for too long.

It’s time for the club to step up and demonstrate its unambiguous commitment to antiracism.

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