For the second year in a row, Liverpool FC are participating in the Liverpool Pride March. Taking place on August 3, the march represents one facet of the club's "Embracing Difference Regardless" strategy that last year saw the entire club attend training in equality and diversity topics.
"Last year, we were proud to be the first Premier League club to support a UK Pride March," said Rishi Jain, the club's social inclusion officer. "For many years we have taken positive steps to promote our stance against homophobia and discrimination both on and off the pitch, and we continue with our commitment to ensuring that principles of inclusion are embedded into all areas of Liverpool Football Club."
There is a lot of scorn heaped upon various social justice initiatives led by club and country, some of it perfectly legitimate. It's not unreasonable to be skeptical about FIFA's anti-racism campaigns, for example, given the generally profound ways in which they do very little to actually "kick it out" when opportunities present themselves. When Liverpool participated in Pride in 2012, many felt it was a glorified photo op and a chance for a little bit of good PR in the extended wake of Luis Suarez's ban for racial abuse. At its most mercenary, it was seen by some as an opportunity to set up a booth at the parade and sell a little more merchandise.
The club may still be opening themselves to criticism again this year. No first team players from the men's team marched last year, and it's unlikely that they will this year given that the parade begins at noon in the city centre and a mere forty-five minutes later Steven Gerrard's testimonial match against Olympiacos kicks off two miles away at Anfield. Last year the club was represented by members from the women's team and various "youth ambassadors" — it remains unclear if these are members of the Academy or other youth affiliated with the club in some way — which is likely to be the case again this year.
There's an argument to be made that politics don't belong in sport and that it's not the job of clubs to educate fans on racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, or any of the other topics du jour. John Barnes pointed out during the Luis Suarez racism controversy that racism in football is not a football problem, it's a social problem; football is just a microcosm of what exists outside of the stadium walls. You're not going to stop racism in football by warming up in a Kick It Out t-shirt before the match starts, you're going to stop it through education and acceptance in the very social fabric that makes up our culture.
I had a disagreement with a friend the other day over progressive political website Think Progress' decision to introduce a Sports category, since, as she asked, "Tell me what's political or progressive about sports?" There was a bit of back and forth between us about sports and their ability to feed into inequity rather than break it down, which I felt was the reason for the website deciding to take on this behemoth of a topic in the first place as there is precious little in the way of discourse surrounding the ways in which our sporting institutions and those of us within a sports culture unknowingly (and often quite knowingly) reinforce discriminatory patterns of behaviour in spite of all the "awareness" campaigns to the contrary.
More than a year ago, almost as if in anticipation of their new Sports category, Think Progress featured a piece about "Why Sports Matter In Progressive Politics" and one of the most salient points quoted in the article was from Dave Zirin on how so many movements involving social change absolutely require discussion of sports and athletes.
"You cannot tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement without talking about Jackie Robinson,” said Zirin. “You cannot tell the story of the 1960s without talking about Tommie Smith and John Carlos on that medal stand with their fists in the air. You cannot tell the story of women’s liberation without telling the story of Billie Jean King. It is so much a part of our history and fighting for freedom, and it’s an absolute sin that it’s not a history that we claim."
Fast forward to 2013 and we have a slate of athletes coming out across multiple sports, with an ever increasing number of teammates, coaching staff, and even governing bodies pledging support for their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* members.
And so back to Merseyside, where one club was the first in the Premier League to formally align with a Pride parade. It may seem like a small, possibly empty gesture to many, but it speaks volumes more to those for whom none of this is "just" politics but for whom this is a daily battleground in their lives.
Liverpool have an opportunity to be a leader in creating and supporting a positive, accepting culture around football, and continued participation in events like Pride are a fantastic and important way of doing just that, no matter how many kits they sell at their merchandise booth. Supporting causes that work to eliminate homophobia outside the football ground is the only way to ensure that homophobia is eliminated inside the ground.
Liverpool Football Club has a motto. You may know it. You'll Never Walk Alone. I am not typically one for sentimentality, but that motto has to mean something beyond blindly supporting a club. It is not an advertising slogan, but an ethos. It is an ideology that expresses inclusiveness in four short words. It is absolutely political; it goes against the status quo to stand up for the beaten down, to throw your support behind those whose voices are regularly silenced, to ensure that no one walks alone. It may not seem like it at first glance, but YNWA is an act of rebellion.