Hertha Berlin’s kneel conveyed a muddled message

A show of solidarity that didn’t quite align with the original intent of the gesture

(HerthaBSC/Twitter)

Initially, it was an odd moment. Before its Bundesliga matchday kicked off against Schalke 04, Hertha Berlin’s Startelf (starting 11) broke its pre-kickoff huddle, formed an awkward crescent, straightened into a line—arms around shoulders—then all 11 players took a knee. Over on the sidelines, Hertha’s coaching staff followed suit.

The crowd in Berlin’s Olympiastadion cheered and applauded. The match commentator on Fox Soccer Match Pass was silent; he seemingly didn’t know the action was planned, nor could he think of anything to say on the spot.

The immediate impulse was to interpret Hertha’s action as one of solidarity with all athletes (German Premier League!), and especially NFL players. This was my first impulse as well. And why not? The NFL kneeling protests dominated sports media (especially the radio waves here in Pittsburgh) last week. However, the action’s motives were a bit of a mixed bag. Hertha’s own tweet pointed to Berlin itself as the motivation:

While Hertha’s stadium announcer declared that Hertha was also kneeling for American athletes: “Berlin is colorful. Hertha stands for diversity and is against violence. For this reason, we are joining with the protest of fellow American athletes to take a stand against discrimination. For a tolerant Berlin, now and forever.” So rather than an either/or, we have a both/and protest representing both Berlin itself and US athletes.     

I’m of two minds about Hertha’s kneeling protest. On one hand, the action gives (now) global momentum and awareness to a protest movement originating here in the US with Colin Kaepernick. On the other hand, the action seemed muddled and risks simply becoming another anodyne and politically correct bromide in European soccer, like previous anti-racism campaigns. This latter possibility would certainly water down a movement that began with Kaepernick’s protest of the US justice system’s abuse of African Americans to something more in line with the feel-good, yet ultimately vapid humanism common in world football’s more formal political protests/activism. (You know you inwardly groan at FIFA’s attempts to legislate morality.)

Outside of the US context, Hertha’s kneeling immediately travels down a different vector of meaning. First, in Berlin there was no protest happening under a US flag (or any national flag) or during a national anthem. These absences alone rob Hertha’s action of the subverse and controversial elements that have had much of the US public debating the NFL protests, or the mixing of sports and politics in general. Without transgressing something like national symbols, it’s easy to kneel. Hell, just ask Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who crucially kneeled before the national anthem was performed a few weeks ago. Of course, the pre-game national anthem performance is mostly unique to US sports, but without a transgressive element, protests risk losing their teeth. For Hertha, kneeling was safe, at least safer than kneeling was for many NFL players, who drew the wrath of many fans and commentators.


Second, Hertha’s own language of diversity, tolerance, responsibility, and open-mindedness are naturally abstractions contrasted with, for the example, the concrete demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sure, the values expressed by Hertha are something like the warrant/ground upon which a movement like Black Live Matter is possible, yet in the context of European football, I worry that these values have become mere background noise, akin to the advertising hoardings or corporate logos plastering post-match interviews. Without concrete causes, locales, stories, and issues, Hertha’s protest, again, risks sliding into the anodyne territory I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  

Moreover, a cynic could argue that Hertha merely appropriated the US protests for marketing gain, because, let’s face it, the kneeling action was great marketing for Hertha Berlin, whose name/brand briefly traveled the entire world via social media and news stories last week. Coincidentally, it’s been documented that Hertha is a club trying to join Europe’s footballing elites, given its location in Europe’s largest city. The cynic could argue that kneeling was ultimate marketing ploy to favorably dispose the club to potential fans around the world.

But I’m not a cynic. I have no doubt the players and staff kneeled in good faith. Just glance at Hertha defender and captain Sebastian Langkamp’s post-match comments: “We’re no longer living in the 18th century but in the 21st century. There are some people, however, who are not that far ideologically yet. If we can give some lessons there with that, then that’s good.” Agreed. Let me make one thing clear: I fully support Hertha’s action and the values the action represents.

However, I think the club did itself a slight disservice by trying to cram too much meaning (solidarity with American athletes, Berlin, diversity, tolerance, responsibility, etc.) into too small a package. Some focus would’ve helped; I’ll try suggest some focus by shifting our attention to the specifically German context of the kneel down.

First, it’s significant that Hertha’s kneel down happened in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, the one-time crown jewel in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, and host stadium of the 1936 Olympics. Naturally, Hertha’s kneel down affirms values antithetical to the Nazi regime. And, given the Nazi ghost always lurking in Germany’s modern history, plus the angst around the recent success of Germany’s far-right AfD party, Hertha’s action suddenly becomes more potently symbolic. What better place to affirm liberal democratic values than in the very stadium formerly valorized by Hitler in Germany’s capital city? I don’t want to say that Hertha Berlin shouldn’t express solidarity with US athletes, but I wonder if in doing so Hertha missed a kairotic opportunity, especially given Germany’s recent national election results. Regardless, the meaning of Hertha’s kneel down would have at least been less abstract if explicitly linked to these concrete historical references and events.

Second, Hertha’s kneel down—especially in evoking terms like diversity, tolerance, responsibility, open-mindedness—can take on powerful meaning within Berlin’s role as Europe’s poster city as a center for political refugees and immigrants. Although not quite yet as ethnically diverse as the London and Paris metro areas, Berlin (and other German towns) have played an outsized role in welcoming recent waves of refugees from Syria and elsewhere under Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. Of course, this resettlement hasn’t been without tension, frustration, utter disappointment, or even violence; nevertheless, Germany and Berlin have taken on the largest share of refugees and immigrants in Europe. As Germany and Berlin settle into more established patterns with its refugee population, Hertha’s action names and affirms values desperately needed as everyone in Germany adjusts and moves forward into an uncertain future. Although you can indirectly interpret Hertha’s kneel down in this light, I wish the club itself had pointed us in this direction. 

Look, I don’t mean to weigh in as if I’m somehow the arbiter of what kind sports-related protests are sanctioned and effective. I’m just suggesting a couple ways Hertha’s kneel down could have had a more concrete message, thus pointing to concrete future activism.

Anyhow, without concrete follow up by the club, Hertha’s kneel down risks falling into the cynic’s trap I mentioned above. Fellow Bundesliga writer Jonathan Harding already made this point. The onus in coming weeks is on Hertha to prove this event wasn’t an unintentional publicity stunt conveniently aligning with the club’s ambitious marketing plans. However, Harding also argued that publicity for the values (diversity, tolerance, responsibility, etc.) espoused by Hertha Berlin is an unqualified good. I agree.

In fact, I would add that public talk about values and their corresponding virtues is conversation material sorely needed in our politically polarized and ugly times. Perhaps even talk of value and virtues within the world of sports can be more effective than attempting this same talk in other cultural discourses weaponized by social media outrage. Finally, I’ll even venture that we’re likely to listen to talk about diversity, tolerance, and open-minded when it’s coming from a football team represented by 10 nationalities and a spectrum of skin hues.  

Despite Hertha’s slightly muddled and overly abstracted message, I hope the club’s kneel down inspires other football clubs to take even more meaningful and creative actions in valorizing the public virtues grounding liberal democracies. In the meantime, we can thank Hertha Berlin for surprising us and opening new political possibilities in football.


Follow Travis on Twitter @tptimmons

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