Chloe Baker, Research Intern
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.
Getting down on one knee has been anything but a threatening gesture. For some examples, it’s used to pay one’s respect, to devote oneself to the Lord in prayer, and to love another human being by asking for their hand in marriage. However, Colin Kaepernick’s and Eric Reid’s decision to Take the Knee on September 1st, 2016, during the American national anthem, was seen as an act of defiance and disrespect, at least that’s how it looked to some of the white population of the United States. For Kaepernick and Reid, this was their way of demonstrating that enough was enough. Why should they stand and salute the flag when it represented a country that continually treated black communities and other minorities as unequal? Since then, a growing variety of sports have become the stage for Black Lives Matter protests involving Taking a Knee, as both have a long history with the struggle for equality and the fight against oppression.
Is Taking a Knee a new way to protest?
The short answer to the above question is no. The Wilberforce Institute has been researching the idea behind Taking a Knee, and what it has uncovered is that while Taking a Knee has been firmly established by 2021 as a way to challenge racism and oppression through George Floyd protests, black individuals have been making the gesture for centuries. Its earliest depiction was in 1787 on a Wedgewood medallion for the abolition cause with the famous words ‘Am I Not A Man and A Brother’. However, this popular abolitionist image is controversial because it was created for a white audience. It shows a supplicant slave in chains with minimal clothing and sanitised of the brutality of slavery, asking white society for the right to be human (Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom, 2010). It was the civil rights era that saw a reclamation of the gesture by black communities as black men and women took a knee in prayer protests and civil disobedience for equality. In the twenty-first century, it is through sports that people of all backgrounds associate Taking a Knee with protesting racism.
Sport as a platform
Since 2016 the question ‘why sports?’ has made its appearance now and then regarding protests taking place in sports settings. The answer to that question can be broken down into several factors. The most obvious one is that sports games congregate the population of the surrounding areas into one spot which means the protest will be seen by a substantial amount of people. Bigger arenas such as the 2020 Olympics are filmed too, and will therefore have the bonus of reaching an even greater audience over a larger radius. Secondly, like any other profession, playing sport is a job and its players are people who wish to create a better working environment with equal opportunities. Scholars Adam Love, Alexander Deeb, and Steven Waller use the National Basketball Association for an example, stating that within the profession people of colour make up 80% of players, but only hold 30% of head coaching positions, 10% of general manager positions, and 6.9% of CEO/President roles.
As outsiders, fans only see that high player percentage, and so they tend to think of sport as removed from ‘everyday concerns of inequality, power, and discrimination’, and the success of athletes of colour as proof that racism is not rampant in the sporting world. Taking a Knee disrupts that view. Thirdly, the reaction the protest receives reflects the attitudes of the area and can therefore prove its point. For example, a football match between Millwall and Derby saw fans boo football players who decided to Take a Knee to protest racism. Lastly, and most significantly, black athletes have been using sports to fight for change for the better part of a century.
Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals, a baseball team, in 1946 and successfully broke the ‘colour line’ of Major League Baseball when appearing on the field for the National League Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 until 1956. Eroseanna Robinson stayed seated for the American national anthem at the Pan American Games of 1959. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics in 1968 for their raised fist gesture at the podium, and Wyomia Tyus wore black shorts at the same event to subtly protest, all in the name of highlighting racial injustice. The list continues. Why sport? Because it’s where people give their undivided attention.
Taking a Knee in sport is the next step in a sequence that goes back to slavery. Black men and women Taking a Knee for a cause is not a twenty-first-century idea but has appeared in history at crucially important moments. The idea of the gesture within sports means that it is kept in the front of people’s minds via popular events, expressing that racism does not cease to exist because one cannot see it.
‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother’ Chair, Wilberforce Institute. Photo taken by Chloé Baker.