Where does football’s virtue signalling end?

Forgive the deliberately provocative title, though it is at least relevant. Many have attributed the rise in players ‘taking a knee’ to nothing more than virtue signalling. I’ve always optimistically assumed that claim to be false, but big decisions are on the horizon.

The key factor is determining whether substance exists in football’s virtue signalling. It’s difficult to gauge an individual’s intent, but long-term commitment to any one cause can be assessed.

What is virtue signalling & how does it manifest?

By definition, virtue signalling is:

“The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”

In effect, it’s overt gestures without substance. Virtue signalling is saying the ‘right’ thing, without any corresponding intent or action, for the sole purpose of portraying yourself in a positive light.

Perhaps the most notorious example is the waves of vapid social media ‘movements’ in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. An awful lot of people agreed institutionalised racism was bad, before conveniently fixating upon the next trend to cross their timeline. That, really, is the core problem with virtue signalling. It’s an implicit criticism, yet inherently hypocritical, since there’s no desire to actually address the issue.

At its most cynical, virtue signalling is the pretence of publicly caring about a topic, to achieve little more than declaring your status as a ‘good person’. Being so vacuous, it’s been weaponised by many commentators to disavow a lot of changes that might otherwise have been perceived as progressive.

One particular area where virtue signalling has been identified is sport.

Football’s virtue signalling:

Taking football as our example, the English team knelt before each game in the 2020 Euros. The justification was demonstrating solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Anyone following the tournament through the BBC would have also witnessed the repeated phrase, ‘Hate Won’t Win’.

It’s a nice sentiment, but teeters dangerously close to virtue signalling. Considering the act in a vacuum, kneeling arguably promotes inclusivity. The English football team, a national icon, has the capacity to enter every British home with a simple message at the beginning of each match: Black Lives Matter. It could cut through as a beacon, a near-constant reminder, projecting the conversation onto the family dinner table. This act might have even initiated a shifting of attitudes.

Unfortunately, however, that did not occur, as was made plainly obvious following an excruciating final’s defeat. Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho were all racially abused by English fans. The ensuing responses to that abuse was positive, in widespread condemnation and a subsequent five arrests, but evidently the intended virtue has not resonated with all fans.

Whether the act of ‘taking a knee’ is effective does not measure if it’s virtue signalling, but responses to its failure help gauge commitment to the cause behind the gesture. I’d like to believe player’s genuine motivation, reaffirmed support proffered to the abused players.

Still, it has yet to be truly tested.

A player’s responsibility

Indulging in a quick and relevant tangent, how far should players be expected or permitted to go in supporting different causes.

Sticking with ‘taking a knee’, some criticisms obviously stem from bigotry. Others might legitimately feel the performative nature undermines the substance. Rightly or wrongly assuming the gesture is fundamentally attention-seeking, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ would almost certainly be applied. Other presumably relish the sight of athlete’s seizing their platform to attempt widespread change, especially where appealing to impressionable fans.

Personally, the entire charade, a word I employ deliberately, is complex. It’s impossible to know what drives an individual athlete. It’s also easy to argue their greatest value is what they produce on the field or court or pitch. Athletes are entertainers. We show up for the unscripted drama. Protests can shatter that illusion, reminding us of the real world. Given that latter point implies a rather selfish perspective on the viewer’s part, I’m inclined to believe athletes should be permitted to protest as they please.

I don’t, of course, believe the absence of protest is necessarily a stance in itself. Those teams or individuals choosing not to ‘take a knee’ are not standing with racism. Again, it’s impossible to truly know what any one person’s motivations might be. Consistency, however, is important to avoid hypocrisy.

Virtue Signalling in Qatar

I mentioned in my post on the Olympics the upcoming challenges facing athletes. There, I advocated for greater protection from governing bodies, lifting the brutal decision-making from their shoulders in a positive way. Athletes shouldn’t feel obliged to follow a status quo they disagree with.

But decisions will have to be made as we draw inexorably closer to the Qatar World Cup. In their qualifying matches, England have continued to ‘take a knee’, even when subjected to jeers and boos from a baying crowd. I think it’s fair to judge the gesture has primarily ignited controversy. I don’t want to overlook to largely intangible impact felt around the country. It has ensured Black Lives Matter persists in different regions of the national psyche. It has sustained the conversation. It just doesn’t seem to have been enough. All is blissfully forgotten once more as the ball is kicked off.

Systematic human rights abuses in Qatar have been well-documented, linked to the upcoming World Cup. At its worst, workers in labour camps have been described as ‘basically slaves’. The country’s inclusivity record is hardly stellar, where homosexuality is also illegal.

After mounting pressure from campaigners, Norway’s international team announced in June that they will not boycott the World Cup. Thus far [as of writing], they have been the sole team [please correct me if not] to issue a definitive statement either way.

Against this backdrop, what would ‘taking a knee’ look like in Qatar? Perhaps it would be similar to any such protest held at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Either way, sport, and especially English and British sport, has made the statement. Political and contemporary issues have saturated the playing field, and can no longer be ignored out of simply convenience. The teams, therefore, have a decision ahead.

Positive Substance or Virtue Signalling?

Again, I’m personally inclined to believe there is distinct value in watching players ‘take a knee’ before they play. It’s not monumental, but it’s something. I’m less sure on how the same action will be received when contextualised by Qatar’s human rights abuses.

I’m not demanding the English team boycott the World Cup. Were they to, it would require incredible bravery. It would be a colossal risk, considering the possibility of being the sole missing team. Fan’s appetites for success have been tantalised but not yet satiated by recent form. Expectations are high, by which I remarkably mean for England’s trophy hopes. It would be foolish to imagine attitudes have significantly shifted since 2018’s Russian-hosted World Cup, where little attention was diverted towards the abysmal human right’s record.

The real question is, How much do we care? How infuriated are we by major injustices? How irate do we grow at the sight of something plainly wrong? How far will we risk ourselves to do the right thing?

In general, as a global population, I think we fall considerably short. If previous sporting events are any indication, nothing sings louder than money, deafening us to the controversies that quickly tumble into margins and footnotes. Change is hard, so why bother? Why expend the energy on compassion when simple ignorance will suffice? On some issues, like climate change, that only exacerbates the problem, drawing us closer to an inevitable conclusion. But on the matter of defending the defenceless? Well, superheroes aren’t real. That just doesn’t happen. Virtue signalling might triumph, or be abandoned, but will likely not ascend to anything more.


Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts down below. I post a number of blogs, covering travel and short stories too. Feature image courtesy of Unsplash.

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