(Reuters) – England’s players took the knee before their opening match of the Qatar World Cup against Iran on Monday. Here is a look at the history of the anti-racism gesture in sport:
HOW DID IT START?
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then a player of National Football League (NFL) side San Francisco 49ers, declined to stand for the U.S. national anthem before a pre-season match in 2016 and knelt in another game, setting off a debate about race relations, policing and the mixing of politics and sports.
Kaepernick was later joined in kneeling during pre-match renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by many NFL players to call attention to what they saw as a pattern of racism in the treatment of African-Americans by U.S. police.
Kaepernick became a free agent after that season and has not been signed by another team since. His activism was seen by some as a reason why teams were wary of signing him.
The protests also drew the ire of then U.S. President Donald Trump, who called for the NFL to ban players who kneel during the anthem.
SPREAD OF MOVEMENT
The Black Lives Matter cause was taken up by Premier League clubs in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
England’s top-flight clubs wore the Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts before it was replaced by “No Room for Racism”.
England’s men’s and women’s teams have knelt before games since 2020, initially in solidarity with protests over Floyd’s death and then in support of equality.
Athletes in other sports have lent support for the movement, most notably Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka at the 2020 U.S. Open where she wore a mask with the name of a different Black American victim of police brutality before her matches.
Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father, went on to win the title and was lauded for her activism.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, the lone Black driver in Formula One, has also been a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement with anti-racism gestures before races.
CRITICISM OF PROTESTS
Critics of the protest, including conservative politicians, say it politicises sport and that they dislike the gesture’s links to the organised element of Black Lives Matter, which some consider a far-left movement.
A YouGov poll published in June last year found that 54% of supporters in England backed players “taking the knee” with 39% opposed.
England manager Gareth Southgate has been supportive and participating in the gesture on the sidelines, saying that black players need to feel solidarity after a bombardment of abuse online and at some matches.
He said his players had “made our stand as a team” after they were booed by Hungary fans when taking the knee before their friendly in Budapest last year. England took the knee during the European Championship last year.
Premier League teams decided to limit taking the knee to only some significant games from the 2022-23 season.
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Angus MacSwan)