Taking The Knee: Brentford’s Tactical Error

by | Feb 15, 2021

I have a soft spot for current Football League championship high-flyers, Brentford. Griffin Park was one 65 bus ride from the top of my road when I started going to professional football regularly in the mid-1980s. It was a long bus ride, mind. But worth it to see the Bees reach Wembley in 1985, with a six-nil Freight Rover Trophy semi-final win over Newport County.

They lost the final to Wigan Athletic, three-one. But a number of my friends were/are Bees fans (mainly thanks to that 65 bus route). So when my season-ticket holding Kingstonian, and occasional Celtic, commitments allowed, Griffin Park was a venue of choice. I stopped going to support Brentford in the early 90s, as professional football got increasingly expensive to watch. Ad my last trip there was in November 2000, to see Kingstonian knock the Bees out of the FA Cup in the First Round proper. However, my spot for them remained soft.

I’m unsure what the opposite to soft spot is (hard spot doesn’t seem right, for many reasons). But that was what I briefly had for Brentford on Sunday morning when I read Saturday evening’s “Statement From The Dressing Room” on their website, announcing that “as a group of players, we have decided we will no longer take a knee before the start of matches.” They made this decision, after ”lengthy discussion,” because “like many of our fellow players at other clubs, (we) no longer believe that this is having an impact. We believe we can use our time and energies to promote racial equality in other ways.”

Pre-empting potential criticism, the group stressed their commitment to “the drive towards equality under the #BeeTogether banner,” having “experienced racist abuse first hand” and “seen some appalling comments made to other players past and present.” With racism being “the opposite of what we stand for,” they promised to “show our commitment to Togetherness and racial equality on and off the pitch between now and the end of the season, and beyond.” And they concluded by offering to “support our colleagues at other clubs that still want to take a knee before games.”

Lest the statement be seen as ONLY “from the dressing room,” Bees Chief Executive Officer Jon Varney said discussions had also taken place “across the club.” He stressed that the club had “supported” the players’ “desire” to take the knee and “now support their desire to focus on other ways to show this commitment.” And players and executive both referenced Brentford’s “ambition to be the most inclusive club in the country.”

This breaking of ranks was almost inevitable. Even my limited mid-distant past experience of political/social justice campaigning taught me the difficulties of maintaining unity of purpose over any extended timescale, even for the ‘easiest’ campaigns for the most justifiable causes. In more recent years, such difficulties have increased, as attention spans have diminished in inverse proportion to the number of issues requiring attention. So, the unity of purpose among those taking the knee before Premier and Football League matches was always going to be increasingly fragile.

Also, as I don’t personally know anyone in the Bees dressing room, I don’t doubt the sincerity of their concerns over the effectiveness of their kneeling, and the sincerity of the various commitments they make. And I don’t doubt that they have been heavily peer-pressured to stop kneeling. So my hot-take, “f**k Brentford,” didn’t survive the slightest internal scrutiny.

Even before Millwall fans booed their players in December for taking a knee, there was opposition to the gesture. From racists, obviously, and from those equating the gesture with Marxist revolution and capitalist looting, just like the enemies of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) movement in the US. This continues, despite the Professional Football Association players’ union stressing that kneeling was “not an endorsement of any political position.” The dreadful Priti Patel called BLM protests “dreadful” and declared “I don’t support protest” (let’s hope nothing unjust ever happens to her, then). ‘Dreadful’ stuff, But, from a Home Secretary, considerable pressure on knee-takers.

I also don’t doubt the players who “believe we can use our time and energies to promote racial equality in other ways.” Nonetheless, the naivete and occasional rank illogic in their statement is disheartening. I mean, how much “time” does taking a knee take? How much “energy” does it require for professional footballers. US politicians moan about impeaching ex-president Donald Trump during a pandemic as if doing two things at once is beyond them. But they are just covering-up their support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 US presidential election result. One hopes that there’s no such cover-up at Brentford.

Still, I wonder about those lengthy dressing-room discussions. Did players assume that kneeling before half-a-season of matches would make racists think “hey, maybe I’ve got this all wrong”? Could no-one at the club explain that the gesture was simply to keep the issue of discrimination in the public eye so that proper campaigning work would get time TO work? Depressing, if so. Because Brentford may be in next season’s Premier League. And whatever other ways they find to promote racial equality, these surely won’t garner the same audience as weekly appearances on Match of the Days 1 and 2.

I wonder too about the players’ last line, which suggests that nobody with any political nous went near the statement before publication. Because what better way is there to “support our colleagues at other clubs that still want to take a knee before games” than to take a knee too? And what worse way is there to show opposition to discrimination than to, literally, stand over those publicising that opposition? There were outcries over the “optics” of Premier League players hugging after goals in an era of social-distancing. But those crying out would shed no tear at disunity in an anti-racist protest.

The players’ words would read better if they were risking as much professional and reputational damage as Colin Kaepernick of Gridiron team the San Francisco 49ers in August 2016, when he trend-set knee-taking during the US National Anthem at a 49ers pre-season game, to protest racially-targeted police brutality there. But they have risked no such damage.

So they must be held firmly to every promise they made on Saturday night. “To promote racial equality in other ways.” To “support the drive towards equality under the #BeeTogether banner.” To “continue to push for an end to all discrimination.” To “show our commitment to Togetherness and racial equality on and off the pitch between now and the end of the season, and beyond.” And to make Brentford “the most inclusive club in the country.”

They should do all this AND take a knee, of course. Domestic footballers began doing so after the May murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The gesture was the done thing then. In sharp contrast to what Brentford’s players say, it becomes more impactful as major media attention focuses elsewhere and pressure builds NOT to do it.

And taking the knee was LITERALLY the “least they could do.” That they no longer wish to do even that is poor optics and poor tactics.

Still hope they go up, though.

(Original image: Wiki commons)