With the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship in full swing, the practice of athletes ‘taking the knee’ is once again in the spotlight. Rising to prominence in 2016 as a symbolic protest against racial injustice in the US, the gesture was subsequently adopted across Black Lives Matter protests throughout the United Kingdom last summer. Its continual use before England’s football matches has sparked significant controversy, with recent booing from fans forcing players and England manager Gareth Southgate to defend the practice. This week, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel became the first cabinet minister to weigh in on the debate, saying that she opposes footballers taking the knee and believes fans are entitled to boo such behaviour.
At Redfield & Wilton Strategies, our latest research reveals that the British public are conspicuously polarised on the subject of taking the knee, with younger people and Labour voters overwhelmingly supportive, and older people and Conservative voters overwhelmingly unsupportive.
A slight plurality (37%) of Britons says they support footballers taking the knee before football matches. Meanwhile, 28% oppose the practice, and 27% neither support nor oppose it.
Yet, when these findings are broken down by age and political leaning, a clear trend emerges. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, 50% support the practice, 27% neither support nor oppose it, and only 10% oppose it. However, in those aged 65 and over, 46% oppose, 20% neither support nor oppose, and 29% support the practice. Strong opposition is concentrated in older age demographics: where only 5% of 18-to-24-year-olds say they strongly oppose taking the knee, this proportion rises to 29% of 55-to-64-year-olds and 33% of those aged 65 and over.
Furthermore, where nearly half (49%) of 2019 Conservative voters oppose the practice, 23% neither support nor oppose it, and 23% support it, these proportions are reversed among their Labour counterparts: 55% of 2019 Labour voters support taking the knee, 24% neither support nor oppose it, and only 13% oppose it. Significantly, a plurality of 2019 Conservative voters (35%) strongly opposes the practice, whereas a plurality of 2019 Labour voters (28%) strongly supports it.
This variance suggests that the subject sharply divides the British public. In fact, our research indicates that the debate on taking the knee is closely related to the current culture wars regarding ‘woke’ activism. Of respondents familiar with the term woke, a plurality (36%) of those who consider themselves woke strongly supports footballers taking the knee, whereas a plurality (31%) of those who do not consider themselves woke strongly opposes the practice. Those respondents unfamiliar with the term ‘woke’ are more balanced on the topic: 29% support taking the knee, 31% neither support nor oppose it, and 28% oppose the practice.
Interestingly, support for taking the knee is comparatively high among football fans themselves, suggesting that, despite the booing at the Euro 2020, many of those with the greatest stake in the debate approve of the England team’s decision. A majority (55%) of respondents who ‘absolutely’ consider themselves football fans support the practice, as does a plurality (40%) of those who ‘somewhat’ consider themselves to be football fans. By contrast, respondents who do ‘not at all’ consider themselves fans tend to be more critical: a plurality (32%) opposes players taking the knee, including 23% who strongly oppose the practice.
Nevertheless, some division exists in the football community, with several English teams, including Bournemouth and Brentford, having opted to stop the practice, describing it as ineffective and tokenistic. Our research finds that the British public is split on this question of efficacy. 33% of respondents think the message sent by footballers taking the knee has had a positive impact so far, whereas 24% think it has had a negative impact and 33% think it has had neither a positive nor a negative impact.
Again, the overall figure disguises the strength of polarisation in public opinion. Nearly half (49%) of 18-to-24-year-olds think the message sent has had a positive impact, compared to only 24% of those aged 65 and over. Likewise, where a plurality of 2019 Conservative voters (39%) says the message sent by footballers taking the knee has had a negative impact, a plurality of their Labour counterparts (43%) considers the impact to have been positive.
Conservative voters are also more likely to feel that taking the knee has escalated beyond its original meaning of non-partisan opposition to racial injustice, instead becoming an inherently partisan and divisive political gesture. A majority (59%) of 2019 Conservative voters agree that taking the knee is a political statement that goes beyond simply expressing opposition to racism, a view held by a comparatively smaller proportion (39%) of 2019 Labour voters.
We see similar political polarisation on the question of what role politics should play in football. Only 27% of respondents say that football players should include politics in football where they can make an impact. Instead, 60% say they identify with the statement that football players should keep politics out of football at all times.
This view is held by pluralities or majorities of respondents in every age demographic. Nonetheless, alignment with this view increases with age: from 48% of 18-to-24-year-olds to 68% of those aged 65 and over. Furthermore, a strong majority (79%) of 2019 Conservative voters think football players should keep politics out of football at all times, compared to a plurality (46%) of their Labour counterparts.
Even so, Britons are in strong agreement when it comes to whether footballers are entitled to take the knee in the first place. A majority (59%) agree that football players should have the right to take the knee at football matches, if they wish.
This view is held by majorities across all age demographics, though it is most popular among 25-to-34-year-olds (65%). Further, it is held across the political divide, though agreement decreases to a plurality (49%) of 2019 Conservative voters, compared to a majority (69%) of 2019 Labour voters.
However, the public is more divided on whether fans should have the right to boo players who take the knee. Overall, 40% of the British public disagree with this statement, 36% agree, and 19% neither agree nor disagree. Nevertheless, as with footballers taking the knee, a plurality of 2019 Conservative voters (47%) agree that fans should have this right to boo, including 24% who strongly agree. In contrast to their support for footballers taking the knee, only 29% of Labour voters, meanwhile, agree that fans should have the right to boo players taking the knee—thereby tilting the overall figures towards disagreement.
As such, it appears that while Conservative voters generally support both footballers having the right to take the knee and fans having the right to boo them for doing so, Labour voters are less inclined to extend this right of free expression to the fans who boo the players.
Our research suggests that the British public is fiercely polarised on footballers taking the knee, with age and political affiliation strong predictors of opinion. Younger people and Labour voters lean toward supporting the practice, thinking it spreads a positive message and should not be booed by fans. Meanwhile, older people and Conservative voters overwhelmingly oppose the practice, thinking it has taken on extra political symbolism, and that fans are within their rights to boo players taking the knee. With the Euro 2020 only just beginning, and both sides feeling strongly in their views, this contentious issue will very likely continue to be debated for the next month.