He didn’t sit. Didn’t kneel. He stood. Tall. Proud. Motionless. Expressionless. His eyes straight forward, his hands behind his back. In silence, and surrounded by it.
The casting of a relatively unknown 23-year-old Irishman as the closest thing British soccer has had to Colin Kaepernick did not begin with an anthem. It did not begin with a flag. It did not begin with a salute – it began without one. And it began with silence.
But soon enough, the keyboard warriors assembled. A Twitter army hurled abuse. An actual army veteran sent death threats – pictures of bullets and all. And the vet doubled down: He deserves to be shot dead + body dragged past the cenotaph!!
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On a November evening in 2012, James McClean, that 23-year-old Irishman, refused to wear a Sunderland shirt with a red poppy embroidered on it for a Premier League game at Everton. He has been the most widely despised player in English soccer ever since. He has sparked debates reminiscent of those surrounding national anthem protests in the United States. And five years after his initial statement, he seemingly stands as firmly by his beliefs as ever.
But James McClean is not the Irish Colin Kaepernick, even if he staged an anthem protest of his own in 2015. Kaepernick incited a movement, one that continues across the NFL today. He inspired others to follow his lead.
Five years after McClean’s initial statement, he remains an isolated insurgent in a desert of obedience, and the exception to an unwritten British sporting rule: “We’re not supposed to have an opinion on these things,” an anonymous Premier League player said of political expression last year.
Indeed, in the U.K., “stick to sports” almost invariably carries the day.
But James McClean doesn’t.
McClean was born in Derry, an old, walled Northern Irish city on the Irish border with a Catholic majority. Specifically, he was born in Creggan, a largely Irish Republican area of town. And on Jan. 30, 1972, just a short distance from Creggan, British soldiers killed 14 innocent Irish civilians on Bloody Sunday, one of the most wretched days of a 30-year conflict infamously known as the Troubles.
For McClean, the poppy and Bloody Sunday are inseparable. He has explained his viewpoint. Many British soccer fans disagree. They see the poppy as apolitical, and therefore see his refusals as disrespectful. And especially ever since he compounded his poppy dissent with a “snub” of the British national anthem, “the whole football world in this country turned on him,” says Gary McLaughlin, owner of the Sunderland blog We Are Wearside. “There is that general feeling that he’s anti-British. That’s how he comes across.”
The Royal British Legion, the charity for veterans and main purveyor of the poppy, maintains that the poppy is merely a symbol of remembrance. Most British citizens accept that interpretation.
But an increasing number dispute it. Some veterans claim the poppy has been hijacked, “politicized and commercialized.” Even the RBL itself spoke out against a far-right political party’s adoption of the symbol. There is a growing sentiment that the poppy represents not only the actors in wars over the past century, but the actions, motives and ongoing endeavors of the British army.
“A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars,” a group of veterans wrote to The Guardian.
John Kelly, a sociology of sport professor at the University of Edinburgh, has noticed a parallel trend: More and more, Great Britain is starting to follow the United States’ lead in promoting patriotism and the military alongside sport. “God Save the Queen” isn’t played before Premier League or rugby league matches, but, Kelly says, “the British military have been much more prominent at sporting events;” veterans are now routinely honored at games; and the proliferation of the poppy has extended to sport.
This is all part of what Kelly calls the incorporation by proxy of sport. “The official representation [of a symbol] is often presented as non-political, when it ultimately is political,” Kelly explains. “And even if you don’t agree with it, it’s very difficult, when you’re an athlete, to opt out of that without doing it publicly. If you don’t do it publicly, you’re assumed to support it.
“So you’re left in a double bind. You’ve got little choice. You either allow yourself to be presented and interpreted as supporting [the cause], or you speak out very publicly. And when you do that, you risk being symbolically annihilated, as Kaepernick and James McClean have.”
Those athletes have both withstood that backlash. The difference is how their protests developed. Kaepernick’s, a call to attention of police brutality toward racial minorities in America, has spread; McClean’s hasn’t. Part of the deviation can be explained by obvious differences in the causes at the hearts of their respective protests.
But part of it must be explained by the belief that sports and politics shouldn’t mesh, and the ferocity with which that concept is defended in the U.K. After McClean sent out what some saw as an incendiary, politically charged tweet in 2013, a member of British parliament, Gregory Campbell, offered an ironic example.
“Three simple words should suffice: stick to football,” the politician said of McClean. “If he doesn’t heed this then a final three words should be given: pack your bags.”
His response: “It’s not really something that I’ve thought too much about yet. I don’t think any of us know too much about it to comment on it. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Other British athletes gave similar non-answers. Whereas hundreds of athletes in the U.S. have spoken out for and against President Donald Trump, and while hundreds more have expressed other political or social opinions, government-related or otherwise, Britain’s sportsmen and sportswomen mostly stay quiet. Because that is what’s expected of them.
“By talking about social injustice or political philosophy, I am in danger of being labelled a prat with a platform,” wrote Joey Barton, one of the more socially conscious Premier League players of his generation, in his autobiography.
Racism remains prevalent in European soccer, and there have been isolated incidents of protest. Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari walked off an Italian pitch last season after fans subjected him to verbal abuse. But for the most part, players who represent ethnic minorities stay quiet.
Howard Gayle, the first black man to play for Liverpool in the 1970s, explained the underlying dynamic last year: “A lot of people don’t want to rattle that cage of racism and draw that attention to them, because they feel that it may [prevent] them from earning certain amounts of money.”
That dynamic applies across the sporting spectrum, not just to minorities and to racism. Athletes, their agents, sponsors and others who control sport know that by withholding contentious opinions, they remain marketable to a wider demographic.
“It allows the sporting celebrity to be a blank page that can be used to advertise anything,” Kelly explains. “If you have a sportsperson that doesn’t give off any political opinions, it’s much easier to use that sportsperson to one minute advertise hair gel, and then one minute advertise Coca Cola, and then the next minute to advertise the nation. So in sports terms, it’s much more important for them to make sure they’re walking billboards.”
Kelly says this principle applies more to sport than any other field. “Stick to sports,” a common refrain from pockets of American fans, reigns in Britain. “When anybody gets involved in politics, they are rounded upon, they are criticized,” Kelly says. “And that happens in ways with sport that I don’t think happens with even actors, or other celebrities. So I don’t think it’s just about being a non-political celebrity.”
That sports-and-politics-don’t-mix myth is problematic because it’s a paradox, one that ties back to Kaepernick.
“It’s OK to delegitimize sportspeople from being political because you want to make them marketable,” Kelly says. “But it’s actually very revealing that it’s not seen as a danger to marketing them to get them to support the American military, and the American flag.”
Or the British military. Or the British anthem. Or the poppy.
“So let’s just not pretend sport and politics don’t mix,” Kelly says. “Of course they do. Let’s actually have some proper, mature discussion and be open about it.
“But that doesn’t seem to happen. That’s the nature of power.”
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.