#BlackoutTuesday: Why Football Has Reacted So Strongly to the George Floyd Protests

Jadon Sancho
SC Paderborn 07 v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga | Lars Baron/Getty Images

Last weekend, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Thuram, Achraf Hakimi and Weston McKennie – all footballers playing in the German Bundesliga – took to the field to draw attention to the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests across the United States.

This week, clubs, players and other figures in football joined the #BlackoutTuesday movement on social media, with many adding their own Black Lives Matter messages.

So. What's going on? Here's a breakdown on how the football world has reacted.

The George Floyd Protests

On the face of it, the protests are a direct result of the killing of George Floyd on 25 May - a 46-year-old black American whose death was captured on video by bystanders. Floyd died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while two of Chauvin's fellow officers pinned Floyd down by his back and knees.

Floyd's alleged crime was paying for food at a deli with what the cashier believed was a forged $20 bill.

All of the officers involved in the incident were fired the following day, but protests began to gather momentum when Chauvin was not arrested for his part in Floyd's death. Three days after his firing, following days of protests across the country, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third degree murder.

If the protests were simply about Floyd's death, that may have been the end of the matter. They weren't, and aren't. The underlying complaint is one which has burned for decades about the unfair and often violent treatment of black people in America at the hands of the police; and the apparent lack of accountability for the country's increasingly militarised law enforcement.

The Recent History

George Floyd is one of hundreds of black people killed by police in America over the last handful of years. In 2014, police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun. Loehmann never faced charges, and remained in his job for three further years.

Three months earlier in 2014, unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Brown's family against Wilson and the City of Ferguson. The suit was settled for $1.5m. The Justice Department later released an assessment concluding that the local authorities targeted black residents, arresting them disproportionately and fining them excessively. Wilson was never indicted for Brown's death.

In 2015, Freddie Gray died due to a broken neck sustained in police custody; a death which the medical examiner's report ruled a homicide. Nobody was ever convicted of a crime related to his death.

In 2016, Philando Castile was shot to death in his car in front of his partner and her daughter by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was fired by the police department, but found not guilty of manslaughter. Wrongful death lawsuits were settled for nearly $4m.

Broader Policing Issues

Those deaths are perhaps the most infamous examples of a common theme in American policing; of lethal force being used disproportionately against black people with few legal consequences against those responsible. Those deaths are a symptom – rather than the disease entire – of the illness within the American policing system, of black Americans being disproportionately targeted.

The police reaction to the protesters in the last week (pepper spraying and tear gassing peaceful protesters, unjustly arresting journalists reporting on the protests, driving cars into groups of protesters, assaulting non-violent protesters) come in stark contrast to the police response to the 'anti-lockdown' protests in the weeks before, in which police did not use tear gas, pepper spray etc against groups of armed – and crucially, overwhelmingly white – protesters.

Some have criticised the protesters in Minneapolis and across the United States over the last week for their demonstrations turning violent. Over the past few years, many forms of peaceful protest have been attempted. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality, and was vilified and blackballed from the league. US Soccer introduced a rule banning 'kneeling' protests during the national anthem after Megan Rapinoe followed Kaepernick's example.

The failure of peaceful protests and attempts to change the system 'from the inside' (those who tell protesters to make their difference by voting might note that both Minneapolis' mayor and Minnesota's governor are both Democrats) has led to the scenes that have been seen across the country; where riots break out.

The most-quoted Martin Luther King line, 'a riot is the language of the unheard', may be trotted out a little too tritely by some people, but the broad point is undeniable. Whether or not you believe the violence in the protests is a good idea, the lack of systematic change made it a near inevitability.

The prevalence of guns in American law enforcement means that more headlines are made by issues over the Atlantic, but figures released in 2018 also showed a disproportionate use of force – including tasers – against black people in England and Wales too. A psychologist testing more than 2,000 officers and police staff for 'implicit bias' found that almost one in five tested since 2009 had an 'ethnicity bias' strong enough to influence their behaviour.

How Football's Reacting

Wolverhampton Wanderers Training Session
Wolves players take a knee in a training session | Wolverhampton Wanderers FC/Getty Images

This, hopefully, has gone some way to explaining why footballers are showing solidarity. What comes next is something of an open question. The FA have strongly hinted that they would be inclined not to dish out the traditional yellow card punishments for players who remove their shirts to display messages, and the president of the German FA said this week: "I have huge respect for players who take a stance and show their solidarity. We need responsible players like them and I am proud of them."

Schalke and US midfielder Weston McKennie, however, was told to take off his 'Justice for George' armband by the referee last weekend, telling Forbes after the match: “I was like, ‘I’m not taking it off’. There’s a rule in the league that you can't make political statements. But I mean, if you really, really look at this as a political statement, then I don't know what to tell you.

"The league and everyone (in soccer) always preaches ‘say no to racism’. So I didn't think that there would be a problem."

FIFA, it seems, agree. An edict was put out on Monday night encouraging referees and competition organisers to exercise 'common sense' over messages relating to the George Floyd killing, a slightly surprising step from an organisation historically incredibly reluctant to make any overt political gestures (although in many cases it's worth noting that the absence of a 'gesture' can be seen as a gesture in itself).

The decision could lead to some headaches in the organisation – they've already taken down a tweet featuring Sancho's 'Justice for George Floyd' t-shirt – as they attempt to find their place in a new and more overtly politicised global landscape.

Meanwhile, in the far-right neofascist landscape of Hungary, Tokmac Nguen was given a written reprimand by the country's FA on Monday for a 'Justice for George Floyd' undershirt of his own, and was warned that any repeats would results in 'actual penalties'. Because football's not an anti-racist utopia either, as much as some would like to think so.

For more from Chris Deeley, follow him on Twitter at @ThatChris1209