The Premier League comes back this week. It's real, it's happening, and Liverpool start to play their remaining matches on Sunday the 21st, facing off against Everton at Goodison Park. In front of empty stands, and with roughly only 300 people in the stadium, including both teams and staffs. There won't be any ball boys, both teams will be allowed to have five substitutions over the traditional three, and the bench will be allowed to have nine players instead of the previous seven - just to start off.
Oh yeah, they'll also be wearing Black Lives Matter on the backs of their shirts instead of their names for this first week, a special patch for the National Health Service, and the Black Lives Matter logo for the rest of the season.
Whew. It's a mouthful. A long, overdue mouthful, honestly.
That whole "politics don't belong in sports" argument has always rubbed me the wrong way. The thing is that sports are a reflection of our lives, our communities, our politics. The situation with the Women's team is the perfect example. Sports and their fandom, while they can easily be reduced to feelings of tribalism, are truly a reflection of our values. How teams and leagues treat their players are fair reflections of the values within the club.
Liverpool has always touted itself as a "socialist club." The city itself has always been fairly left leaning with it's largely working class population, but it was the legendary manager Bill Shankly who instilled the "socialist" values that the club strives to today.
Shankly once famously spoke of his outlook on life, saying, “The socialism I believe in isn't really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it's the way I see football and the way I see life.”
With that in mind, Liverpool have set up many extensive initiatives to take care of their community, with the Liverpool FC Foundation taking charge to give back. The city of Liverpool itself has had its own problems with the Covid-19 pandemic, with many cases being traced back to the Champions League match against Atletico Madrid in March. Captain Jordan Henderson recently spearheaded a project to raise money for the Merseyside Food Banks with the club and then worked with the other Premier League captains to raise money for the NHS.
It stands to reason, then, that issues of racial justice would be the club’s bread and butter. Of course they would throw their support behind something like the fight against police brutality and the equality and equity of all lives, but importantly black lives at the moment. It’s a little sad that two players of color had to organize a protest rather than the club itself taking on the reins, but they’ve certainly taken advantage of the opportunity to at least appear like they’re supporting the cause.
That’s the other thing, isn’t it? It’s easy for clubs and leagues and brands to post something, say something, start a catchy hashtag (#SayNoToRacism, anyone?) but doing the actual work is a lot harder. How do we hold our clubs accountable to the work that they publicly say they’re going to do? How do we make sure that Liverpool itself will follow up on its commitment to black lives? Or to the LGBTQ+ community? Or even to women?
Let’s be honest here, judging by their track record alone with the Women’s team (with only a couple Black players there, too), there’s not a lot of proof to put some faith into. Sure, the money they’ve raised for the NHS and the local community is great, but the local community is predominantly white. As of 2011 only 2.6% of the population was listed as Black or Black British. How much of the money raised for those local communities goes to that Black population? Does any of it go to fighting racial injustices in general, or at all?
That doesn’t even take into account the city of Liverpool’s history in the slave trade.
No one likes to talk about race, or really anything that makes them uncomfortable. Raheem Sterling, a former Liverpool player, has gotten enough flack for bringing it up — the treatment he’s endured by the press, and by English fans. Speaking out about it is often interpreted as an attack, as racism is perceived as an aggressive and hateful act against one person or a group of people instead of the system built to benefit white people that it is. And that’s just race. We haven’t even touched on the rainbow laces and armbands for Pride month (that we’re currently in) and how members of the Liverpool FC front office will march in the parade but players never have.
Now, we’ve gotten to the point where we could use the distraction of sports most, in addition to the chance to reach a wider audience than ever for these causes. I’ll be honest, I’m so excited for the team to be back, even if it means watching from home instead of the bar and with empty stadiums. More people than ever will be looking to these teams to lift them up, to distract them for ninety minutes out of the day, so why wouldn’t they use that to bring light to these problems in the world?
The problem is simply holding them accountable. It’s 2020, posting publicly your support for black lives, women, LGTBQ+ community members, is the bare minimum of what people and brands and clubs and players should be doing. The onus shouldn’t be on the players, anyway, to speak out for the treatment that all human beings deserve. It is not Georginio Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk’s responsibility to get all the others players and staff to kneel in the center circle of Anfield’s pitch to make a statement. It shouldn’t be on the departing Liverpool Women’s players to passive aggressively say that they hated playing for the club, for real change to happen.
We have to ask more, of ourselves as fans, and of our clubs. Ask more of what we can do to make sure change is enacted, that these oppressive systems that are literally killing people, are dismantled. And sure, you might come back to me and say “it’s just football, it’s not that serious.” Or even that these are talented and famous players, they’re privileged just by nature of their careers. That does not mean they are exempt from racism, or oppressive systems. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still help them, especially when they are asking for it, protesting for it, screaming for it.
It’s a double edged sword, the League coming back when it is. There are still protests going on all over the world. There is a high chance that players may even take a knee themselves before or after the match, in a country when that protest hadn’t taken off. There are still people dying all over as countries struggle to control the Covid-19 pandemic, protect their healthcare workers, and restart their own economies.
Patches and new names and logos won’t change any of that. Only action will. The very foundation of our club that Bill Shankly built back then -- that we are all working for each other. To make life better for each other. All of those symbols are just that until there is action, until there is doing to back them up.