Boris Johnson Finds Himself in a Dilemma Over Racism and Sport

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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried to distance himself from Donald J. Trump since the change of power in Washington and has been successful. His first face-to-face meeting with President Biden last month went smoothly: The two found common ground on climate change, and Mr Johnson called Mr Trump’s successor a “big clean air.”

But now Mr. Johnson finds himself in the kind of sidewinds Mr. Trump has incited. His refusal to condemn the crowds who booed the England national football team for kneeling down to protest racial injustice has a distinct repercussion. Mr Trump’s targeting of kneeling NFL players for the same cause in the United States.

One of the cabinet ministers criticized the actors for engaging in “politics of gestures”, while his spokesman said to mocking audiences that the prime minister “fully respected the rights of those who chose to protest peacefully and express their feelings”.

In Mr Johnson’s case, there was more he could not say than what he said. But in Britain, as in the United States, the mix of sport, politics and racial justice has proven to be as volatile as a boomerang on a prime minister whose populist instincts on cultural issues have often served him well.

of England inspiring running He enchanted the nation at the European football championship. Johnson’s silence and taunts from other Conservative politicians brought him into the harsh spotlight when three of his black players were subjected to racial abuse after losing smack in the final last weekend. They were suddenly on the wrong side of a team that symbolized England’s racial diversity.

“This was a Trump tactics book, and it worked for Trump until George Floyd,” said Frank Luntz, an American pollster, referring to the police killing of an unarmed man in Minneapolis last year. This crime sparked massive protests against racism and police brutality, and stifled Mr Trump’s campaign to fire football players who refused to stand during the national anthem.

Mr. Luntz, who has advised many Republican candidates, is currently working with the Center for Policy Studies, a Conservative Party-affiliated London research institute, to study voter attitudes in the UK. Mr. Luntz, a classmate of Mr. Johnson’s at Oxford University, denies comparing the prime minister to Mr. Trump. (Better analog, says Ronald Reagan.)

But Mr Luntz said there are other worrying parallels between Britain and the United States. He said the deep polarization of the electorate – whether it’s the populist appeal of Mr Johnson’s Conservatives or the political correctness of the left – has led to the exploitation of certain issues that threaten to erode British politics as badly as American politics.

“We passed the Rubicon in the US,” he said. “They are getting dangerously close to crossing here.”

Mr. Trump is finally quitting his NFL campaign, while Mr. Johnson is in a full-blown retreat. A prime minister questioned in Parliament this week by Labor leader Keir Starmer insisted he wholeheartedly supports the UK team. “I support them in the same way they show support for their friends facing racism,” Mr Johnson added.

“The government is trying to foment a culture war and they realized they were on the wrong side. And now they hope no one noticed.”

The biggest threat to Mr Johnson comes not from politicians but from players reacting to the racist taunts that erupted on social media after the team lost to Italy in the penalty shootout. Bukayo Saka, one of the three young black players who missed his kicks, Posted on Twitter “There is no place for racism or hatred in football or any area of ​​society.”

Tyrone Mings, a Black defender, tweeted a direct link between the abuse and the government“You can’t fuel the fire by labeling our anti-racist message ‘Politics of the Movement’ at the start of the tournament and then act disgusted when what we’re campaigning against happens.”

Her reference was Priti Patel, Mr Johnson’s home secretary, who said the team’s practice of kneeling was a “politics of gestures” and refused to condemn fans for mocking them. Lee Anderson, a Conservative Member of Parliament elected in 2019 amid growing pro-Brexit support for Mr Johnson’s party, has promised not to watch England games as long as players are on their knees.

Patel, one of the strictest ministers in the cabinet on immigration matters, played a supporting role in this drama, unlike that of Vice President Mike Pence in Mr. Trump’s NFL battle. By order of the president in October 2017, Mr. Pence blatantly left a game in Indianapolis.

Mr Johnson has been more tactful than Mr Trump, who once described a protesting actor as “the one”. “Son of a bitch.” The prime minister has never been openly critical of the team, leaving it to a spokesperson to answer questions about the booing from the fans.

Mr. Johnson has several reasons to be cautious. England’s team represents the nation, not the interests of its wealthy private owners, like a typical NFL franchise. England’s players sing “God Save the Queen” and kneel just a few minutes before kick-off. This makes them less vulnerable to accusations of being patriotic than the actors sitting in “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Most notably, the England team under their manager, Gareth Southgate, has had rare successes on and off the pitch. He beat Germany and Denmark to reach the first final of a major tournament in 55 years. And its players have used their reputations effectively in their pursuit of social justice – completing a decades-long transformation in the team’s image from the days when some saw it as offensive, symbolizing a type of right-wing British nationalism.

Another of his black players, Marcus Rashford, ran a campaign that forced Mr Johnson to reverse his plans to end a free lunch program for poor families during the pandemic. After Mr Rashford also missed the penalty kick in the final, vandals defaced a mural in his hometown of Manchester with racist graffiti. within hours, the dirt is covered with hearts, letters and British flags.

In an eloquent “Dear England” letter, Mr. Southgate steadfastly supported his players’ right to interfere in political matters. He said it was natural for them to have different views of being British than people of his own generation, which contrasted markedly with the messages given by the NFL and its owners. The league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, asked players to defend the anthem before backing out amid the Black Lives Matter protests.

All this misled Mr. Johnson. Just a few months ago, he vehemently opposed plans to establish an elite European super league, presenting himself as a champion of football’s working-class fans. Now, however, Mr Johnson’s gestures wearing the British “Three Lions” jersey or waving the British flag in front of Downing Street 10 felt belated and unrealistic to many.

“The Tories are confused; They don’t know how to run with it,” said John M. Williams, a sports sociologist at the University of Leicester. “They have their own right-wing voters, so they think they should go after they kneel. But they’re afraid the England team is doing politics better than they are.”

Mr Williams said that as in the United States, social issues in Britain are part of a deeper debate – between a liberal, inclusive, multiethnic society and its opposite. “Strangely,” he said, “the England national team is at the center of this discussion.”



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