A male soccer player in a blue jersey kneels in a soccer stadium.
Mason Holgate of Everton kneels before a Premier League match against Liverpool on June 21, 2020. (Photo by Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images)

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June 2020, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol, England pulled down a statue of Edward Colston from its pedestal, dragged it through the city’s streets and dumped it into the harbour. Colston, who some revered for his philanthropic donations to schools and hospitals, was a 17th century slave trader. He made his fortune through his involvement in the Royal African Company, a mercantile corporation that oversaw the forced removal, transportation and annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Black Africans. The dismantling of his statue – which had stood for 125 years – was an iconic event in the demonstrations across the United Kingdom, adding new momentum to campaigns to remove or replace public monuments, and to rename buildings that have racist, colonial connections.

Hours after Colston’s statue fell, as reports cascaded across social media, Liam Rosenior, a professional soccer coach for Derby County, tweeted his reaction. He informed his followers that Rosenior is a slave name and that when he was a child growing up in Bristol he had attended a school named after Colston. His tweet ended: “Pardon me for enjoying this moment of irony.” Just a couple days earlier, Rosenior, a keen scholar of Black history and whose daughters are American citizens, had written an open letter to Donald Trump in The Guardian newspaper, condemning the US President’s “open hatred, indifference and disregard towards a people subjugated by physical, economic, mental and emotional abuse for more than 400 years.”

Rosenior’s words echoed those of another Black British former soccer player, Howard Gayle. In 2016, Gayle publically rejected the award of an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), part of an array of honours conferred annually by Queen Elizabeth II, because of its associations with British colonialism. Both players trace parts of their family histories to Sierra Leone. Already a major location in the transatlantic slave trade, Britain’s principal role in the industry and decimation of the population there commenced in the early 1600s. Later on, at the end of the 18th century, Sierra Leone was selected by British abolitionists and philanthropists as the site for the repatriation of London’s “Black Poor,” including freed slaves and African Americans who had fought for the British Army in the American Revolution. “When you look at what the empire did to my family and our ancestors, it just doesn’t bear credence,” Gayle stated. “I would always have felt uncomfortable writing those letters [MBE] after my name.”

English soccer responds to Black Lives Matter

Ten days after the toppling of Colston’s statue, soccer in England’s top men’s division (the Premier League) returned after its Covid-19 enforced intermission. During this break in play, the extent and outcomes of a different pandemic were brought to global public attention: systemic anti-Black racism. Following the killing of African Americans including David McAtee, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor by police officers or members of the US National Guard, anti-racist protests took place in a variety of cultural settings across the world. For the first round of resumed English soccer matches, “Black Lives Matter” replaced players’ names on the backs of their jerseys. Players and officials all took a knee immediately before kick-off in every remaining game to show their solidarity and collective opposition to racism.

“Sport participation and stardom do not provide reprieve from larger societal, racist violence” writes anthropologist Stanley Thangaraj. In a hitherto unprecedented contribution to the public conversation on race in the UK, several Black elite soccer players – men and women – spoke out powerfully against global racial injustice. Watford’s Andre Gray, whose back is tattooed with a montage of historic US, South African and Jamaican political and cultural leaders, stated, “So the marches over here are not just for the police brutality in America – it’s for England, as well. And Paris and all over the world. It’s because of the systematic racism that is everywhere.”

Both Nedum Onuoha, a British player for Real Salt Lake in the MLS, and the US international DeAndre Yedlin, who plays for Newcastle United, described how they felt unsafe and fearful as young Black men in the United States, especially during interactions with police officers. Aston Villa’s Anita Asante and Liverpool’s Rinsola Babajide drew attention to common state practices of anti-Blackness and police brutality in the US and the UK. Jess Carter of Chelsea and Ebony Salmon of Bristol City, meanwhile, emphasised the contemporary significance of the global anti-racist protests, plus their own capacity to be role models for young Black women. Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham, England with “Won’t Be Silenced” written on his facemask, and he posted afterwards on Instagram that the “energy and power” of the demonstration was “like nothing I’ve felt before.”

Thinking, acting and resisting across space and time

The involvement and leadership of Black soccer players (as well as support from a number of white allies) was a well-noted feature of the popular anti-racist uprisings of summer 2020 in the UK. Yet scholarly and journalistic commentaries on these developments tend to restrict the influence and impact of key sportspeople to particular spaces and times. They do not acknowledge that the orientations and perspectives underpinning the players’ activism are, in fact, both transnational (extending beyond individual countries) and transhistorical (spanning different eras) in scope. This viewpoint disconnects the players’ actions from other people, places and periods. It deters any consideration of how the principles, purpose and power of what they say and do are informed and nourished by transnational networks and interactions; and it inhibits recognition of how they often draw on happenings and movements from the (sometimes distant) past as well as the present.

As the examples above illustrate, Black soccer players are familiar with manifestations of anti-Blackness and white supremacy in other places and from varied points in history. Connecting them to the issues and problems of modern English soccer and British society allows these athletes to contextualise and comprehend their own experiences and struggles. Moreover, drawing on the techniques and tactics of global anti-racism enables them to align in critical mass against racism and other social injustices on both local and worldwide scales. They protest against global inequality and oppression, as well as the difficulties they face in their own careers. They speak outside their sport, beyond their nation and past their own lifetimes. Yet, at the same time, they refuse to displace racism as something that is external to the UK. Instead, they draw attention to its presence, not least in sport and the police, forming part of what sociologist Gargi Bhattacharyya labels “a globally integrated machinery of state racisms.”

The scholar-activist Urooj Shahzadi states that, “if we do not organize our collective strength we risk losing deeply important histories and collective solutions.” Black Lives Matter has shown that an expansive, cross-cultural and transnational politics and practice of anti-racism is fundamental to challenging anti-Blackness and white racial violence as a global phenomenon. Black soccer players (and sportspeople more widely) have outlined and enacted a compelling approach to striving for racial justice in sport and society. As professional soccer institutions face up to their own need for deep self-reflection, structural reform and more radical anti-racist policies, they could do far worse than follow the players’ lead.

Daniel Burdsey is a Reader in the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics at the University of Brighton, UK; and an Associate Professor (status only) at the University of Toronto, Canada. His new book Racism and English Football: For Club and Country will be published by Routledge in fall 2020.

Follow the University of Brighton Sport and Leisure Cultures research group on Twitter: @sport_research