The symbol is not political. The request to display the symbol is political, but our decision to reject that request is not political.
This is the real, actual substance of a statement issued Wednesday by UEFA, the governing body for European soccer that runs the Euro 2020 tournament currently playing out all over the continent. The headline of the press release read, "UEFA Respects the Rainbow." Despite a passing resemblance to bygone Skittles ad campaigns, this was in fact the organization's latest attempt at firefighting a controversy of its own making that has rumbled along for days now.
It began when UEFA launched an investigation this past weekend into German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer's decision to wear a rainbow armband in honor of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and whether this constituted a political statement from a player, something on which UEFA has a stated ban. Neuer wore the armband as Germany's captain in their Euro 2020 matches against France and Portugal. (In this case, a German guy in an armband was a welcome sight.) The announcement was met with considerable outcry, considering UEFA was slow to launch any sort of investigation into the explicit anti-LGBTQ+ banners that Hungary fans brought to their first group-stage match last Tuesday against Portugal. That was the same day the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that many observers saw as a carbon copy of Russian legislation aimed at LGBTQ+ "propaganda." It arrived amid a larger push in this direction by Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban ahead of an election next year. It was roundly condemned by leaders in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Ireland, and beyond.
UEFA has since begun an investigation into the Hungarian signage, but they've also been busy with regard to Germany. When Munich's mayor, Dieter Reiter, called for the city's Allianz Arena to be lit up in rainbow colors when it plays host to Germany's match against Hungary on Wednesday, and the German Football Association applied to UEFA for permission to do so, the governing body turned down the request. "UEFA, through its statutes, is a politically and religiously neutral organisation," it said in a statement. "Given the political context of this specific request—a message aiming at a decision taken by the Hungarian national parliament—UEFA must decline this request."
Except, at the same time, UEFA was considering moving the tournament's semifinal and final stages to Hungary over concerns that Wembley Stadium in London, where they're scheduled to be held, would not be permitted to host enough fans under the U.K.'s current pandemic guidelines. That now looks unlikely, but it was itself a statement that UEFA has no problem with what's going on in Hungary right now. They want to host the final of the European Championships there! Budapest has hosted a number of matches, just like Gdansk, Poland hosted a major club tournament final this year despite an anti-LGBTQ+ push in that country.
None of these decisions from UEFA are somehow apolitical simply because UEFA refuses to acknowledge their political content. Even the NCAA knows that when you choose to do business somewhere, you're sending the message on some level that what's going on there is alright. Yet we're still getting these convoluted explanations from UEFA about why the stadium in Munich cannot express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month:
If the symbol is not political, why is displaying the symbol political? Oh, because it represents criticism of a political decision undertaken by the Hungarian parliament? Sounds like everything here is political. Which it is. Advocacy for the status quo—or, in this case, backlash against a social minority—is most definitely political. If the rainbow symbolizes UEFA's "core values" including "a more just and egalitarian society, tolerant of everyone, regardless of their background, belief or gender," and this constitutes an affront to Hungary, what does that say about Hungary's political regime? And what does it say about UEFA's decision to do business there?
This is all merely the sound of nervous corporate-class chattering. Large firms and the sports leagues they sponsor are very happy to display their Pride flags—and their support for Black Lives Matter—now that public opinion has shifted so massively in the United States and many European countries. They were less enthusiastic when it involved swimming against any sort of tide, and the NBA, for instance, remains very unenthusiastic about grappling with human-rights abuses in China. Don't scare the horses—or the sponsors. Anything that rocks the boat is political and unwelcome in sport. Anything that reflects the status quo, regardless of the moral or human-rights merits, is alright. Suddenly, "politics" is some discrete phenomenon that occurs only within government buildings. This is the same absurd logic that greeted Colin Kaepernick when he first took the knee and kicked off a monsoon of backlash that swiftly ended his career in the National Football League. Kaepernick's demand that we grapple with the United States' failure to live up to its founding values, trumpeted so boisterously in the national anthem, was obviously political. But so is the jingoistic routine we roll out before every game, an assertion of unequivocal national greatness that Kaepernick sought to puncture with a reminder of the reality outside.
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After all, that first game in Hungary was also marked by a march against "the knee" in the streets of Budapest beyond the stadium walls. All over Europe in the months since George Floyd's death, most top-level soccer matches have kicked off with all players from both sides taking the knee in a gesture of solidarity and recognition that racial inequity and discrimination persists as a problem that requires action in Western society. As fans have re-entered stadiums, some have booed this display. Are we really to believe they're just booing the entrance of "politics" into sport? Is it really so enraging to see some guys go down on one knee for six seconds before the match kicks off? Or is it enraging to be reminded that the way we have arranged our society is unjust in some fundamental way, and that some of us may have benefited from that?
"For UEFA, the rainbow is not a political symbol, but a sign of our firm commitment to a more diverse and inclusive society," that Wednesday statement read. But the whole point here is that in Hungary, there is a movement underway that is firmly committed to opposing a more diverse and inclusive society. This latest "family values" anti-LGBTQ+ gambit from Orban follows on a years-long hate campaign against immigrants. The whole point is that securing a better world requires a fight, and a fight usually features people on the other side. If UEFA were honest, they'd release a statement that they don't really care about this issue and they don't want to hear about it.
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