Co-written with Jeremy Addley
It is the most serene of all moments. Yet it remains incredibly divisive.
Martin Luther King Jr. showed what taking the knee means in its purest form: a peaceful, solitary moment of prayer, which has become a symbol of unity in the battle for racial equality.
Sport has the power to accomplish change through its popularity, position and powerful messaging. That much has always been clear. So, how have we got to the point where a symbol of unity is often headlined as an image of disparity?
Athletes have been taking the knee for some time now, but in the United Kingdom – at least in our major team sports – it has only recently been implemented as a form of protest against racial injustice.
Back in August, every team in England’s top two football leagues decided to take the knee, and it has become a far more prominent talking point in the British media since. While some clubs were met with opposition from fans, for the most part, the players obliged.
Lately, more teams have spoken out against taking the knee in football, as they believe it is no longer fulfilling its purpose as a precedent for change. However, in rugby, some players have always opposed kneeling, as we saw in the early Six Nations ties, where the response was entirely mixed.
When speaking to the Sports Gazette last week, ex British and Irish Lion and current BT sport pundit, Ugo Monye, compared the different responses to taking the knee in the nation’s two most popular sports: “In the Premier League, we’ve seen every single player take the knee since August but I’m sure some of those players don’t want to take the knee.
“What we have seen in rugby is a far truer reflection of society. [That] optically might look one way but at least it’s honest. I much prefer that.”
It’s not that some athletes oppose equality – the large majority thankfully support that message, and rightly so. It is more that they have their own reasons for not taking it. Wilfried Zaha has said he thinks it is degrading, meanwhile, Billy Vunipola believes his faith prevents him from kneeling.
Monye believes that before athletes make a decision on whether or not to kneel, they must be educated about its origins: “I do find some of the comments [interesting] when people say ‘I’d only take the knee for God.’ This is where it is really important to get to the historical facts of where the knee started.
“He [Martin Luther King Jr.] took the knee as a peaceful protest to take a moment to pray.”
Understandably then, Monye, who is a religious man himself, is unsure why some use faith as justification for not taking the knee, when it actually has a religious background: “When people say that they won’t take it [unless it is] for God, I’m like, it actually all started from a peaceful moment of prayer. The whole movement is born out of religion.”
The former England international is therefore committed to helping people learn about the history, which is why at the beginning of the 2020/21 season, he began a new role within Premiership Rugby that helps to equip every single person in a particular organisation with relevant, factual information. As a result, they can make their own informed judgement about whether to kneel or not, and importantly, be content with that decision.
Unsurprisingly however, someone who doesn’t take the knee will always be questioned why. He believes that is fundamentally wrong, and no-one should ever ask that question, regardless of their personal opinion: “It’s not anyone’s right to ask the question by the way, including myself.
“So long as they were comfortable with the reasons as to why they didn’t take the knee then it’s cool.”
Monye said that if he was still playing, he would take the knee. Yet the one thing he is adamant about is that he doesn’t want any player or group within Premiership Rugby to feel marginalised for not doing so.
“We can’t come from a topic where people feel marginalised to then marginalising a group of people.”
We must acknowledge Monye’s message about education and continue to learn from it.
A lot of positive work has been done, but whenever you are talking about injustice, it’s vital to remember that the work should not stop until equality has been achieved.