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A Columnist's Reaction To England Men's Soccer Team Taking A Knee

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The English men's soccer team has a nice little advantage at this year's European Cup tournament. They're playing their first three matches in London at Wembley Stadium. They even started off with a one-nil win last Sunday against Croatia. But it hasn't been all love from the English fans at home. Some are criticizing the team for taking a knee in honor of Black Lives Matter ahead of kickoff, something that they've done since last summer. England manager Gareth Southgate had to address the topic at a press conference before the tournament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARETH SOUTHGATE: We feel that - more than ever, determined to take the knee through this tournament. We accept that there might be an adverse reaction, and we're just going to ignore that and move forward.

CORNISH: We wanted to bring in English writer Nels Abbey, who actually wrote about this for The Independent. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NELS ABBEY: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: You say that modern racism has many battle cries. What do you mean? And how do you think about that in the context of sports?

ABBEY: Yeah, so racism in the terms of, say, football can be sometimes very, very extreme in Britain when - in the earlier days of some of the more famous players, such as John Barnes, would have bananas thrown at them, monkey sounds chanted, the N-word's been seemed to have been yelled at times, too. So now when you bring in something like taking a knee in solidarity against racism, notably anti-Black racism which has an enduring appeal to it within certain countries such as ours, such as the United States of America, too, then that battle cry sounds like a boo, like a scream of dissent, a scream of a disagreement for it, even though it's a completely harmless and fairly empty, dare I add, gesture. But it's still something that is a gesture too far for this sentiment, and I think what the driving force behind this sentiment, this booing is racism.

CORNISH: You wrote admiring the manager, Gareth Southgate, who is white. Can you talk about why? Is what he's doing unusual? Is he taking a stand in a way that maybe other managers are not?

ABBEY: The key thing that Gareth Southgate is doing is this. Gareth Southgate could have ran away from the principle of anti-racism when it got difficult. He could have just said, actually, we're not taking the money anymore, and people would have forgotten about in a day or so, and he would have been - he would have even been more popular, probably could have put him in higher prestige in the eyes of large parts of society. Well, he took a stand. He took a stand not because it was popular, but because it was the right thing to do. It was the appropriate thing to do, and it was the anti-racist thing to do. And that's what he's done. And for that, I hold him in the highest esteem possible.

CORNISH: Has this debate overshadowed the game or this tournament? I mean, I know that England is going to be playing Scotland tomorrow, right? How is it kind of casting a shadow over the sport?

ABBEY: It's not casting a shadow over the sport. There's something really interesting going about that. The England players, when they took a knee on their last - on their first game, which was against Croatia, the two men who set up the goal were two men of Jamaican descent. And if you want to speak about people who are vilified - and Jamaicans, of course, in Britain are the descendants of British enslavement. And it was so powerful to see that. After all the booing and everything else that was happening in the terraces and all the disgraceful people who don't really contribute to the success of society, after all of that, it took these people, whose pretty much lives have - to a certain degree, their lineage at least have been shaped by British racism, bring so much happiness to the nation at that particular moment.

And I think that actually speaks volumes. So they didn't let it distract them. They didn't let the boos get them down. And I think that's a metaphor for being Black and British, where you contribute so much - often don't really get the accommodation that we deserve as a result of it, but we're still keeping going.

CORNISH: Columnist Nells Abbey. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ABBEY: It's been an absolute delight. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KNUX'S "CAPPUCCINO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.