The cabinet minister claimed they were rather reacting to the “underlying political message” of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he insisted was “not sympathetic to the United Kingdom as a nation”.
His remarks came after Priti Patel, the home secretary, branded the act of footballers taking the knee as “gesture politics”, but did not condemn fans who booed the players, suggesting it was a “choice for them” during an interview.
However, following Ms Patel’s comments on Monday, No 10 insisted that Boris Johnson wanted to “see fans cheering, not booing” the team as a minority of fans booed the players’ anti-racism act of taking the knee ahead of the team’s opening Euro 2020 match against Croatia at Wembley Stadium.
“I think it’s become problematic,” Mr Rees Mogg said. “The symbol of taking the knee has become associated with the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement and that is where the controversy becomes very apparent and very stark.”
Speaking on his weekly podcast hosted by Conservative Home, the leader of the Commons claimed: “The BLM movement is a Marxist movement that wants to do things like defund the police, and is not sympathetic to our current civil structures.
“On the other hand I think footballers are showing they are opposed to racism and this has been a long running battle in football with things like Kick It Out that have been remarkably successful but where there is still, inevitably, more to be done.
“I think the difficulty is over the symbolism that has become attached to taking the knee, which is in fact an American issue which relates to people kneeling down during the national anthem which is sung before all sorts of games in the US, in a way that it just isn’t in the UK.”
Pressed on what he thought fans were booing when players took the knee, Mr Rees Mogg said: “I think they are booing the BLM movement – I think that’s quite clearly a reaction to what is now known about BLM and the underlying political message which is one that is not sympathetic to the United Kingdom as a nation”.
Quizzed on whether he thought they were racists, he replied: “No, I don’t think there’s any evidence they are racists. I think calling them racists is unfairly attributing views to people who have been part of a movement – football – that has taken huge strides to reduce racism.”
“I think the objection to it [taking the knee] is the politicalisation through the BLM movement rather than [the] huge hinterland of racism in football.”
Also speaking on Wednesday, however, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, suggested on Times Radio that people should have the opportunity to show their “strength of feeling against prejudice” by taking the knee.
When asked if Boris Johnson backs players taking the knee last week, a No 10 spokesperson replied: “Yes. The prime minister respects the right of all people to peacefully protest and make their feelings known about injustices. The PM wants to see everybody getting behind their team to cheer them on, not boo.”
England manager Gareth Southgate said recently that players had to “recognise the impact they can have on society” and “give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people”.
“I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” he explained in a lengthy article for The Players’ Tribune website setting out his views. Mr Southgate spoke of a “responsibility to the wider community to use my voice”, adding: “So do the players.”
In a statement over the weekend the Football Association backed Southgate, saying: “There can be no doubt as to why the players are taking the knee and what it represents in a footballing context. We encourage those that oppose this action to reflect on the message you are sending to the players you are supporting.”