Once England had Tebbit’s cricket test – now it’s the penalty kick test | Ben Carrington
In the world of sports, something remarkable is happening. Athletes across the globe are challenging the conditions under which they play the game.The women’s US football team has fought for pay equity, the tennis star Naomi Osaka has questioned the power of the sports media, and athletes Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have questioned the validity of the medical and scientific arguments restricting their rights to compete as women.In real time, we are watching a world revolution in sports. Athletes are making their own history and exercising agency as they come into political consciousness. No longer are sports women and men content to just “shut up and dribble” and to leave politics to the politicians.
No clearer example of this can be found than in the remarkable post on Monday by Tyrone Mings. On his Twitter account, the England and Aston Villa footballer directly called out Priti Patel, the home secretary, for her hypocrisy in claiming to be against racism in football, having failed to condemn football fans who had booed players “taking a knee” against racism. Patel had previously echoed rightwing talking points that attempt to undercut the campaign for racial equality in sport by dismissing the symbolic act of kneeling before a game as meaningless virtue-signalling.
Mings said: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”
During Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, both the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, and Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, quoted Mings as they attacked Boris Johnson for condemning the footballer’s protest as gesture politics. The significance of this moment, of politicians taking their lead from footballers, should not be overlooked.
Unlike in the US, where in the post-Donald Trump era we have grown used to active athletes challenging the words of politicians, and vice versa, in the British context Mings’ statement, in directly calling out a senior cabinet minister for perpetuating racism, is without precedent as far as I or many other sports journalists and academics can remember.
After Sunday’s game, and following Mings’ statement, a more confident, self-assured, even defiant form of collective black identity and cultural politics seems to be emerging. For example, in a moving and powerful statement, Marcus Rashford declared: “I will never apologise for who I am … I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old black man from … south Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that.”
The immediate context, of course, has been the vicious levels of racism directed primarily at the three black England players, including Rashford, who missed penalties during Sunday’s Euro 2020 final against Italy. But this moment needs to be situated within a wider conjuncture that would include the political and economic realignments following Brexit, the lingering effects of the global pandemic that has torn asunder the social fabric of British society, and the unresolved post-imperial crisis of Englishness that remains wedded to an unacknowledged attachment to white supremacy and the continuing denial of racism in this country.
One Conservative MP stated he would boycott watching the England games, in protest against the protests, while the actor and cause célèbre for the anti-woke right, Laurence Fox, went as far as declaring that he wanted England to actually lose, although he later walked that back and apologised as England made its way through the stages and towards the final.
If the right was doing its best to disown the England team (at least until it looked like it might actually win), writers on the left saw in Southgate’s multiracial team the embodiment of a more progressive, tolerant and forward-looking nationalism: a team not only at ease with diversity but actively anti-racist.
Yet the promised New England that was to be magically birthed through football evaporated inside 10 minutes and three misplaced penalty kicks. It turns out that the symbolic weight placed on those young black men, as well as the inherent unpredictability of sports, proved too much to bear.
These young footballers have been plunged into politics through football, and we are witnessing them lead and shape national conversations on racism in a way that has left many politicians on the bench. The question before us remains, then, what type of politics can be constructed out of the messy and fraught terrain of sports in general and football in particular that can be connected to a broader politics of transformation? What new collective identities can sport help to bring about?
The current calls for permanent bans – and even criminal convictions in extreme cases – for any fan found guilty of racism are a welcome and long overdue step, but we cannot ban our way out of racism. Similarly, the calls for social media companies to require users to fully self-identify and stop anonymous posts will undoubtedly help reduce some of the excesses of the grotesque forms of anti-black racism we’ve seen in recent days.
But such approaches focus on the extreme forms of language used, not the more problematic ideology behind such posts: namely an investment in an Englishness rooted in imperial nostalgia, linked to the malicious Powellite idea that to be truly English you must be white, and the logical conclusion that black people’s acceptance into the civic life of the nation is conditional on how well we perform on the sports field. Our loyalty and right to be recognised as citizens used to be the Tebbit cricket test; now it’s the penalty kick test.
Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho are currently facing the brunt of the racist right’s vitriol. But just as Southgate decided to put them in the position to take those penalties, we must all now take responsibility for creating a nation that recognises and respects all black British citizens regardless of how well one of us can take a spot kick. Or as Lewis Hamilton, another black athlete coming into consciousness in this moment, smartly put it: “We must work towards a society that doesn’t require Black players to prove their value or place in society only through victory.”