Ken Early: Taking the knee is not just an empty gesture – it never was

Booing Millwall fans remind everybody what the knee protests are actually all about

Millwall players take the knee to signal their opposition to racism before the Championship match between Millwall and Derby County at The Den. Millwall fans loudly booed the gesture. Photograph: Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

Back in September, Les Ferdinand became the first high-profile figure in English football to suggest that there was no longer much point in players taking the knee at the start of matches.

QPR, where Ferdinand is technical director, had been criticised after their players did not take the knee at the beginning of a Championships fixture against Coventry. Ferdinand came out to bat for his club, arguing that in the fight against racism, actions counted for more than empty gestures.

“Taking the knee was very powerful but we feel that impact has now been diluted . . . The taking of the knee has reached a point of ‘good PR’ but little more than that. The message has been lost. It is now not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge,” Ferdinand said.

You could see his point.


While the gesture may not always have been empty, the stadiums in which it was happening were. With no audience there to respond to the message, it became hard to remember what the message actually was.

The sense of drift was summed up in the increasingly vague and bland phrases deployed by commentators at the kneeling moment, with Martin Tyler serving up a typical formulation before Leeds played Arsenal on November 22nd: "the players continue to take the knee in pursuit of equality in the world".

On Saturday afternoon at The Den, the referee's starting whistle was the signal both for Millwall and Derby County players to take the knee, and for the 2,000 Millwall fans in attendance for the first time since February to unleash a furious tirade of boos.

The reaction would have come as no real surprise to the Millwall players, who had taken the unusual step of issuing a statement the day before the game explaining that they would continue to take the knee at the beginning of matches until the end of the year, and that their decision to do so should not be taken as an endorsement of any particular political ideology. You could see some of the Derby players, including Ireland's Jason Knight, looking around wonderingly as Millwall's finest howled their defiance.

Millwall are, of course, never happier than when howling defiance. It’s what they love doing more than anything in the world. Being the bad-boy club is their core brand value – it’s the only reason the rest of the world ever pays attention to them. If they quietly went along with the knee protest like the rest of the frauds and virtue-signallers, then everyone might forget not to like them.

Of course, most Millwall fans angrily reject the accusation that their booing of the knee protest was somehow motivated by racism. Instead, they argue the booing expressed their displeasure at unwanted intrusion of politics into football.

“We came to watch a football match, not to be lectured on morality by out-of-touch woke elites,” etc.

One struggles in vain to remember the screams of outrage with which The Den greeted the intrusion of politics into football in the form of militarised Remembrance Day ceremonies. As you can imagine, it would take a brave Millwall fan to boo a minute’s silence in Poppy Week. So the fans are not objecting to the intrusion of politics as such, but rather the intrusion of politics they don’t like.

Remembrance Day is a national celebration of how Britain’s brave boys saved the world – twice – the message is: Britain is a superhero among nations. The knee protest says “Britain is racist, and needs to change”. It’s no surprise that many at The Den have found one of these messages more agreeable than the other.

The problem is, if you are are making a big show of rejecting a campaign which is widely seen as anti-racist, people might think you are racist. Hence the effort underway to recast the knee protests as the brainchild of Black Lives Matter, and BLM itself as an insidious anti-British Marxist conspiracy.

In this account, footballing anti-racism is the Trojan horse in which a sinister subversive group is trying to smuggle its true aims: disbanding the police, abolishing the nuclear family, ultimately the full dissolution of Western civilisation. The conspirators have been enabled by useful idiots in authority who embrace fashionable hypocrisies while despising ‘real’ fans.

Hot takes

The truth is that the knee protests were conceived and instigated not by BLM, nor by the football authorities, nor would-be cultural engineers among “woke media elites”, but by the football players themselves.

The first European football player to take a knee was Marcus Thuram, after he scored for Borussia Moenchengladbach against Union Berlin on May 31st, six days after the killing of George Floyd.

At the suggestion of Gini Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool released a picture of their squad taking the knee at Anfield the next day, and by the time the Premier League resumed in mid-June, the players had decided on the gesture at the beginning of matches that has been going on ever since.

Saturday’s events triggered plentiful hot takes defending the booing as the correct response to the hectoring of the wokescolds. Not many of these reckoned with the words of Millwall defender Mahlon Romeo, who told the South London Press : “What they’ve done is booed and condemned a peaceful gesture which was put in place to highlight, combat and stop any discriminatory behaviour and racism. That’s it – that’s all that gesture is. And the fans have chosen to boo that, which for the life of me I can’t understand. It has offended me and everyone who works for this club – the players and the staff... This is the first time I feel disrespected. Because you have booed and condemned a peaceful gesture which – and it needs repeating – was put in place to highlight, combat and tackle any discriminatory behaviour and racism in general. I’m almost lost for words.”

Speaking on the BBC over the weekend, Micah Richards suggested there should be "real punishments" arising out of Saturday's booing. In truth any effort to single out fans for punishment would surely do more harm than good.

There’s no rule against “disrespecting the knee”. If a bunch of aging football fans wants to boo and fulminate against a player-led anti-racist initiative, and convince themselves that by doing so they are keeping their country safe from Marxism, then they should be free to do so. And everyone else should be free to make up their own minds about what is really going on.

But the players are the ones who are in control, and these protests can continue as long as they wish them to.

Mahlon Romeo asked: “When fans are booing a peaceful gesture to highlight racism, it naturally makes you ask yourself ‘why am I putting myself through this?’” Because what happened this weekend showed that Les Ferdinand was wrong: taking the knee is not just an empty gesture. It never was.

What the players have been doing has meaning and real power. Thanks are due to the Millwall fans for reminding everybody what the knee protests were all about.