Millwall fans who booed footballers taking a knee in opposition to racism should “always be respected”, the cabinet minister George Eustice has said, arguing that Black Lives Matter should be viewed as “a political movement”.
The UK environment secretary, who was appearing on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday, was asked for his opinion on the incident on Saturday, in which some of the 2,000 fans attending a home game for the first time this season loudly booed the players’ gesture.
Players have been taking a knee across English football this season in recognition of the BLM movement and wider concerns about racial injustice in the UK and around the world.
Eustice said he had not seen the incident and that “the issue of race and racial discrimination is something that we all take very very seriously”. But he added: “My personal view is that Black Lives Matter, capital B, L and M, is actually a political movement that is different to what most of us believe in, which is standing up for racial equality.”
He added: “Each individual can take their own choices about how they reflect this and I know a number of people feel quite strongly and have taken that approach.”
After being played a clip of the incident, which took place at the match against Derby, he again refused to condemn the fans’ behaviour, saying he could not hear it properly, before adding: “There have been problems obviously with racism in football in the past. It’s right that that’s called out and challenged when we see it.”
Of the Millwall fans’ booing he said: “If people choose to reflect their view in a particular way that should always be respected.”
Millwall has sought in recent years to shake off its longstanding reputation for racism in the stands and violence among supporters, with the south London club seeking to emphasise its anti-racist work in the community.
Eustice’s position stood in sharp contrast to widespread condemnation of the incident within football on Saturday. Both the English Football League and the FA expressed their support of the players, with the FA saying it “strongly condemns the behaviours of any spectators that actively voice their opposition to such activities”.
The chair of Kick It Out, Sanjay Bhandari, said players should be praised for “defying the hate”. He said: “What this demonstrates is that players are right to continue standing up to discrimination, whether that is through taking the knee or speaking out.”
The Derby striker Colin Kazim-Richards, who had stood with a raised fist when other players were taking a knee, described the booing as “an absolute disgrace”. He added on Twitter: “Having to say this is a pain but I’ll say it every single damn time – this is why I stand and stand proud and I have to say every single person involved with (Derby County) did too – made me proud to wear this shirt with the boys today.
The Derby caretaker manager, Wayne Rooney, said: “No one condones that behaviour.” Millwall’s manager, Gary Rowett, said: “The players have come out and said they don’t support the political aspect, but they do support the anti-discrimination aspect of it … The club does an enormous amount of work on anti-racism.”