Boris Johnson Finds Himself in a Quandary Over Racism and Sports

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LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain has labored to distance himself from Donald J. Trump since the change of power in Washington, and not without success. His first face-to-face meeting with President Biden last month went smoothly: The two found common ground on climate change and Mr. Johnson labeled Mr. Trump’s successor a “big breath of fresh air.”

But now Mr. Johnson finds himself back in crosswinds of the kind Mr. Trump used to stir up. His refusal to condemn crowds who booed England’s national soccer team for kneeling to protest racial injustice carries a distinct echo of Mr. Trump’s targeting of N.F.L. players who knelt for the same cause in the United States.

One of his cabinet ministers criticized the players for engaging in “gesture politics,” while his spokesman said of the jeering spectators that the prime minister “fully respects the right of those who choose to peacefully protest and make their feelings known.”

In Mr. Johnson’s case, it was less what he said than what he failed to say. But in England, as in the United States, the mix of sports, politics and racial justice has proved volatile, boomeranging on a prime minister whose populist instincts on cultural issues have often served him well.

But Mr. Luntz said there were other alarming parallels between Britain and the United States. The deep polarization of voters, he said, has led to an exploitation of some issues — whether the populist appeals of Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives or the political correctness of the left — that threaten to corrode British politics as badly as they have American politics.

His reference was to Mr. Johnson’s home secretary, Priti Patel, who said the team’s practice of kneeling was “gesture politics” and refused to condemn fans for jeering it. Lee Anderson, a Conservative member of Parliament who was elected in 2019 in a surge of pro-Brexit support for Mr. Johnson’s party, vowed not to watch England games as long as the players knelt.

Mr. Southgate, in an eloquent “Dear England” letter, steadfastly supported his players’ rights to get involved in political issues. He said it was natural they would have different views of being English than people of his generation — a distinct contrast to the messages that were delivered by the N.F.L. and its owners. The league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, first required players to stand for the anthem before reversing himself amid the Black Lives Matter protests.

All of this left Mr. Johnson wrong-footed. Only a few months ago, he stridently opposed plans to form an elite European superleague, presenting himself as a champion of soccer’s working-class fans. Now, though, Mr. Johnson’s gestures — wearing an England “Three Lions” jersey or flying an English flag outside 10 Downing Street — struck many as belated and inauthentic.

“It’s confused the Tories; they don’t know how to run with this,” said John M. Williams, a sports sociologist at the University of Leicester. “They have their own right-wing constituency, so they feel they have to go after the taking of the knee. But they’re afraid that the England team is doing politics better than they are.”

As in the United States, Mr. Williams said, social issues in Britain are part of a deeper debate — between a liberal, inclusive, multiracial society and its opposite. “Weirdly,” he said, “the England national team is at the heart of this debate.”

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