Boris Johnson’s hope that the return of the Premier League will distract us from his criminal incompetence is likely to be misplaced as a new generation of politicised black footballers emerges, writes Sean Ledwith
Matt Hancock is a cringe-inducing politician at the best of times but to see him on Sky News mispronounce the name of a black man who must be Britain’s best-known player right now was awful even by his low standards. Marcus Rashford –or ‘Daniel’ as Hancock called him- has deservedly attained praise and respect from many quarters for his stand on extending free school meal vouchers over the summer holidays.
Rashford’s high-profile campaign forced Boris Johnson into a screeching handbrake turn yesterday on a blatantly punitive policy that would have hit the most vulnerable children in society. Hancock’s unconvincing appreciation for Rashford must have been made through gritted teeth as in April the Health Secretary had cynically tried to deflect criticism of the government’s shambolic corona response by trying to shame Premier League footballers into taking a pay cut as acknowledgement of the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of NHS staff who have died in the pandemic.
We now know Hancock’s own blundering negligence over the provision of PPE is the principal reason why almost 200 health workers have died so far in the unfolding calamity. Hancock’s opportunism looks even more risible in light of the £20 million Rashford has helped raise for a charity that supplies breakfast clubs and free school meals across the country.
Therese Coffey, Work and Pensions Secretary, was another Tory minister caught flat-footed by Rashford’s intervention. Blissfully unaware that her boss was about to leave her high and dry, Coffeyinitially rejected the footballer’s proposal in a tone-deaf manner that has become the hallmark of this government. Rashford tweeted impressively on his own personal experience of child poverty as the working-class son of a single mother: "When you wake up this morning and run your shower take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown". Clueless Coffey responded to this heartfelt message with a level of empathy that must come from working in the same team as Dominic Cummings: "Water cannot be disconnected though".
The rising tide of Black Lives Matter protests has encouraged other footballers to articulate their anger and resentment at decades of inequality and racism in British society. Watford player Andre Gray has spoken powerfully about his feelings in the wake of the GeorgeFloyd killing in the US: "I can’t even count how many times I’ve been pulled over. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to a club and not got in, how many times a security guard has followed me round a shop. So the marches over here are not just for the police in America-it’s for England as well. It’s because of the systematic racism that is everywhere." Gray proudly displays a back tattoo that features Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and other icons of anti-racist resistance.
Jadon Sancho, a black English footballer in the German Bundesliga, marked his first post-lockdown goal by revealing a t-shirt with the message Justice for George Floyd. Sancho’s example prompted fellow professionals in the German league to organise a display of solidarity in last weekend’s round of matches as players from all teams, black and white, took the knee before kick-off. This remarkable surge in anti-racist consciousness among footballers has persuaded the English FA to authorise the phrase Black Lives Matter on the backs of players’ shirts for the duration of this season. Jordan Henderson, the white captain of Liverpool and England, tweeted his support for the move: "We, the players, stand together with the singular objective of eradicating social prejudice wherever it exists to bring about a global society of inclusion, respect and equal opportunities for all regardless of their colour or creed". Women’s Footballer of the Year, Lucy Bronze, has added her voice to the escalating campaign. Of course, it was another black sportsman, NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who pioneered the gesture of taking the knee in the US in 2016.
It is inconceivable any of these dramatic gestures would have happened without the multiracial protests-and statue removals- organised by BLM over the last few weeks. The power of mass mobilisation to shift political consciousness has rarely been better demonstrated. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson continues to demonstrate he is hopelessly out of touch with this new mood of heightened anti-racism. On Monday, as he announced yet another ‘kick the can down the road’ commission into racism, the Prime Minister talked of a need to ‘stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’-as if the ONS statistic that black people are twice as likely to die from corona as white people is just a figment of our imagination.
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