(Reuters) - The Premier League reaffirmed its commitment to its anti-racism campaign on Tuesday, which it said was not political, although it was “aware of the risk posed by groups that seek to hijack popular causes and campaigns”.
The league issued a statement after its chief executive Richard Masters was grilled by British lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday about its support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
At the hearing of the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Committee, Masters defended players’ and clubs’ collective decision to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their shirts, describing the cause as a moral one.
When the league restarted this month after a three-month stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all players had “Black Lives Matter” on their shirts instead of their names in the opening round of games. They have continued to take a knee before kickoff in support of BLM.
“The Premier League offered this backing as we wholly agree with the players’ single objective of eradicating racial prejudice wherever it exists,” the league said in a statement on Tuesday.
Players will continue to wear Black Lives Matter logos on their shirt sleeves until the end of the season but the league said this support had no connection with political groups connected to the movement.
One group, ‘UKBLM’, which has raised more than 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) through a gofundme appeal, calls for the dismantling of capitalism, has tweeted about defunding the police and made a series of social media posts about issues concerning Israel/Palestine.
“We are aware of the risk posed by groups that seek to hijack popular causes and campaigns to promote their own political views,” the league said.
“These actions are entirely unwelcome and are rejected by the Premier League and all other professional football bodies, and they underline the importance of our sport coming together to declare a very clear position against prejudice.
“We want our message to be a positive one that recognises football has the power to bring people together.”
At the DCMS hearing, Conservative MP Steve Brine said the league’s support for the BLM movement appeared to mark a shift from its previous opposition to political messages in the sport.
He highlighted previous cases of politics in English football, such as when Arsenal distanced themselves from Mesut Ozil’s support for the Uighur Muslim population in China and when the league fined Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of Catalan independence campaigners.
“How did we get from Ozil and Pep to Black Lives Matter, and can the Premier League players and managers now be assured that anything goes if they have a cause that they feel strongly about and the Premier League will not take action against them?” Brine asked Masters.
“I think we are living in unprecedented times,” Masters replied.
“Players are used to being the messageboard for other people’s messages and on this occasion they wanted to make two very clear statements as players, supported by the Premier League and the clubs: Thanking the NHS (National Health Service)... and also recognising the issues that are going around the world and the support of the sentiment of Black Lives Matter,” he said. “We listened and are happy to support them.
“I don’t think it sets any particular precedent. I think it is perfectly possible to support Black Lives Matter the sentiment without being seen to support any political organisation,” he said.
“We are an apolitical organisation - we don’t support political organisations.”
Masters said if players got involved in political messaging on the field without agreement they would remain in breach of regulations and could face fines.
Labour MP Julie Elliott said she was concerned about Masters’ explanation.
“I think you are opening up a can of worms by how you have responded to those questions,” she said.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Toby Davis