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TO MOST watching Dortmund star Jadon Sancho remove his jersey to reveal the handwritten message “Justice for George Floyd” on his undershirt, it was a powerful expression of activism on a football pitch.
To the Bundesliga referee overseeing the game, it was an action requiring punishment. And as he brandished his yellow card, rarely has a rule looked so out of touch.
At one of the few globally televised live events on Sunday, Sancho showed the sporting world that Floyd’s death resonated far beyond the United States.
Floyd, a black man, was filmed gasping for breath last Monday in Minneapolis while being pressed under the knee of a white police officer for almost nine minutes. Floyd’s death has sparked days of furious protests across the US and the rest of the world.
Four players this weekend in Germany took a stand in support of the protesters, making their point in the first major football league to resume during the coronavirus pandemic.
The referee who penalised Sancho, Daniel Siebert, was following global football rules when he showed his yellow card. Fifa regulations state that players should be cautioned for removing their jersey while celebrating. Any messages on undergarments — from the political and religious to the personal — have been prohibited since 2014, although the penalty is left to each league to decide.
Dortmund teammate Achraf Hakimi revealed his own yellow “Justice for George Floyd” T-shirt when he netted his team’s fourth goal against Paderborn. But the Moroccan was not booked — the rule wasn’t even applied equally.
The Bundesliga did not respond to requests for comment.
“We have to come together as one & fight for justice,” the 20-year-old Sancho tweeted after the match. “We are stronger together!”
The protests rippled across the league. On Sunday another Bundesliga player, Marcus Thuram, invoked NFL star Colin Kaepernick — ostracised by the US league for years due to his take-a-knee protests against police brutality — after he scored for Monchengladbach against Union Berlin, dropping to his left knee, resting his right arm on his right thigh and bowing his head.
A day earlier, Shalke’s Texas-born midfielder Weston McKennie wore an armband with the handwritten message “Justice for George” around his left arm.
“Rather than commenting on what a player should or shouldn’t be doing,” said Mary Harvey, chief executive of the Centre for Sports and Human Rights, “shouldn’t our focus be on why players felt the need to do this in the first place?”
In Britain and the rest of Europe, football has been plagued by racial incidents at games, with few people facing consequences. As a young black player, part of the England squad that was subjected to sickening racist abuse in last year’s Euro 2020 qualifiers in Montenegro and Bulgaria, Sancho spoke out against the scant punishment for offenders in the stands and on the field.
“It puts the confidence down in players,” he said last year, “and the love of the sport will go very soon if it doesn’t stop.”
From Kaepernick to the NBA’s LeBron James to Sancho, athlete activism is not going away.
What message would be sent if Sancho had received a second yellow card during the match?
Three years ago, Fifa made a commitment to respect human rights in places the governing body hosts events. Denying players the right of freedom of expression inside stadiums is in direct conflict with that commitment.
The law prohibiting slogans and statements on equipment needs revisiting — before, and certainly now.
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