Wilfried Zaha has become the first Premier League player to vow to stop taking a knee, as he called for football to move on from the “degrading” anti-racism protest.
The Crystal Palace forward suggested the demonstration sparked by Black Lives Matter was becoming meaningless, and said he “feels like it’s a target” for abuse.
His vehement opposition comes despite anti-discrimination campaigners and unions saying the vast majority of footballers want to continue the gesture before kick-offs.
England manager Gareth Southgate said this week the gesture was still “hugely powerful”, but Zaha suggested he wanted no part “because I’m not here just to tick boxes”.
“I feel like taking a knee is degrading,” he told the Financial Times’ Business of Football summit on Thursday. “Growing up, my parents just let me know that I should just be proud to be black, no matter what. I just think we should stand tall.”
His comments come after a week in which Championship Brentford also released a statement saying their players would no longer be joining the protest. Zaha, 28, agreed the impact of the protest had diminished since it was introduced following Project Restart.
“Taking the knee now, we do it before games and sometimes people forget that we have to do it before games and people pass the ball before and think ‘oh’,” said the winger, who has returned to individual training following his hamstring injury. “I think the meaning behind the whole thing is becoming something that we just do now. That’s not enough. I’m not going to take the knee, I’m not going to wear Black Lives Matter on the back of my shirt, because it feels like it’s a target. We are trying to say we are equal but these things are not working anyway. I think we should just stand tall and now I don’t really tend to speak on racism aspects because I’m not here just to tick boxes. Unless there’s change, don’t ask me about it. Unless action is going to happen I don’t want to hear about it.”
The protests have polarised opinion in football, particularly below the top tier, but the Professional Footballers’ Association has consistently said players want to continue after the initiative was launched by top-tier captains. At the start of this season, the Premier League distanced itself from political elements of the BLM movement by replacing logos on shirts with the message ‘No Room For Racism’.
England’s Southgate said this week that he disagreed with the suggestion that it was becoming less impactful, but last night Ged Grebby, chief executive of Show Racism the Red Card, said Zaha’s opinion should be respected as players taking the knee “should only do so consciously”.
“We respect anybody’s right to have any views,” Grebby told Telegraph Sport. “Les Ferdinand, a founding member of Show Racism the Red Card, expressed views similar to Wilf’s so that’s entirely within their right and as long as there’s discussion on the issue, if the majority of players are still wanting to take the knee, then certainly we will be behind it.”
Zaha, who has previously taken the knee with players, said he was “100 per cent” a man of action rather than symbolism. He previously told the On The Judy podcast: “The whole kneeling down — why must I kneel down for you to show that we matter… why must I even wear Black Lives Matter on the back of my top to show you that we matter? This is all degrading stuff.”
In August last year, the England cricket team became the first professional sports team to stop taking the knee before play. Several England players have also remained standing prior to Six Nations rugby matches, too.
In football, opinion has been most divided in the Championship. QPR had stopped taking a knee after Ferdinand, the Championship club’s director of football, said that the impact of the gesture had become diluted. EFL members have since been meeting to discuss alternative demonstrations after anti-BLM jeering, initially from fans at Millwall’s match against Derby.
The debate around the protests comes as football considers its next steps to tackle a surge in racist abuse facing players online. Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham on Thursday told the same FT summit that social media abuse to black players was the “biggest problem” in football, after striker Eddie Nketiah became the latest target. Venkatesham revealed how the club was offering up psychologists to help players. “Unfortunately, we are getting to a point where this type of abuse that a black footballer is getting is becoming increasingly normalised,” he added.
It has been suggested that a social-media boycott by clubs and footballers would put the pressure on social media companies to take stronger action.
But Sanjay Bhandari, the chair of anti-racism group, Kick It Out, said: “If you are doing it with the view that you are going to give social media a bloody nose and they are going to come back to the negotiating table because you have hurt them, you have to remember we are looking at David and Goliath.”
During his interview, Zaha also cast further doubt on his future at Selhurst Park, explaining he is an ambitious player who wants to win trophies to make his children proud. “I’ll always give my 100 per cent but I’ve always been ambitious,” he added. “If there are opportunities [to move] I’ll look at them.”