A “protest” that ends the second one is asked to pay even the slightest personal cost isn’t actually a protest. In that case, all that it is or ever was was an empty PR gesture.
This week, when given the opportunity by FIFA to make wearing of the One Love armband a genuine protest with genuine stakes—albeit quite mild ones compared to the what those in the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar face—European football folded.
National team captains from England’s Harry Kane to Netherlands’ Virgil van Dijk, on the advice of their federations, chose not to wear the armband rather than risk a yellow card.
“There are people who say we don’t have a backbone, but that’s not how it works,” Van Dijk said when asked about the situation. “We just want to play football. I would have loved to play with that band, but not at the expense of a yellow card.”
That, though, is the definition of not having a backbone—to abandon a protest at the first sign you might be asked to pay even the smallest personal cost.
Or at least if you claim to care about the issue you’re meant to be protesting in support of it’s not having a backbone, just as if the English FA said players could not kneel before kickoff without being yellow carded and the answer of the players was to stop kneeling it would show a lack of backbone.
Which, if Van Dijk and the other European captains who chose to abandon their protest simply don’t care enough to pay any kind of a cost, is fair in its way. If they want to ignore politics and stick to being football players, one can make an argument in defence of that.
Sections of the fanbase of both his club and country would feel let down by it, but there is a defence in simply being willing to say I am not interested in making this my fight.
There is no defence in claiming you actually do care while folding at the slightest sign of adversity. Doing so gives lie to any claims you care about the issue and will make the next time you stand up in supposed support—when you know you will face no repercussion for standing up—seem little more than the hollowest of PR gestures.
“I play in a position where a yellow card is not useful,” Van Dijk added. “I became a football player and I want to play these kind of tournaments.”
Again, that’s fair in its way. But if it had been an issue Van Dijk, the Netherlands federation, and the captains and federations of England, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland had truly cared about one wonders if they would have folded so easily or forced FIFA into the embarrassing situation of yellow carding all of them and amplifying the conversation.
And it’s that that will be on the minds of every LGBTQ+ fan of those nations and of the clubs their captains play for the next time they pay lip service to equality issues.