John Barnes has seen anti-racism movements in sports and society before. Indeed, the former star of Liverpool and England was at the center of the subject as a player: during Liverpool’s game at Everton in 1988, a fan threw a banana at him and he famously backheel-kicked it off the field.
So it’s understandable that he sees this summer’s worldwide protests — fueled by the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black citizens of the United States and other countries — as not so new.
“People have said there’s going to be a change, that this feels different,” Barnes said in an interview this week. “While we’ve seen visible signs of support … six weeks ago, this wasn’t an issue. Six weeks ago, racism wasn’t a problem. The fact that all of a sudden, George Floyd got killed, all of a sudden people are now outraged — as if this wasn’t happening for the last hundred years, the last 20 years.”
He's certainly happy to see that some of those visible signs have been shown in the Premier League, where players have taken a knee at the start of games and worn the Black Lives Matter motto on jersey patches and name plates. Now he wants substantive action.
"Every single game in the Champions League for the last five years, they've got 'Say No To Racism' banners passing along the line [of players before kickoff], and on their sleeves. And has anything changed?" Barnes said. "We need tangible proof of tangible action, to actually challenge racial inequality. And that only comes from government, it comes from councils, it doesn't come from sportsmen. A sportsman's job can highlight the problem, and he can use his platform to highlight the problem — he can't do anything to change the problem."
But when that platform is used right, it can have an impact. That happened this month when Manchester United and England star Marcus Rashford led a social media campaign to force the British government to restore funds cut from a meal program for underprivileged children.
Barnes was thrilled by that.
"Marcus Rashford, in two days, affected the policy of the government," he said.
Can stars and the global movement now effect real change in people’s mentalities? Barnes hopes so.
“John Barnes, a banana coming on the field, George Floyd, Bubba Wallace, those are racist incidents,” he said. “As long as we just keep [saying] ‘racist incidents,’ we miss the bigger picture. … [It] is also to do with the socioeconomic climate that Black people find themselves in, which is real racism, and that’s what we have to challenge. If we just look for the visible signs of outrage from people when they see something, that’s not going to change anything.”
In addition to his anti-racism efforts, Barnes works these days as a pundit on England’s Sky Sports (owned by Comcast), an ambassador for Liverpool, and an endorser of brands including gambling site VegasInsider.com.
He is thrilled that his old club has finally ended its 30-year title drought. Under the management of charismatic coach Jurgen Klopp, the Reds have become champions of England for the first time since before the Premier League was launched.
“We’ve been waiting a long time,” said Barnes, who still lives in Liverpool. “When we last won it in 1990, it probably got to around ’95 when I probably thought, ‘Well, we’re probably not going to win it in the next three or four years.’ Obviously in ’95 I didn’t think it would be until 2020, but by the time say, 2013 came along, 2014, I thought it would be another 20 years — I didn’t think we’d be doing it in 2020 because we were so far behind Manchester United and Manchester City.”
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on Liverpool’s celebrations. The stands at Anfield were empty on Wednesday when the Reds routed Crystal Palace, because fans aren’t allowed at games.
"Of course you'd want full stadiums and everybody to be able to mingle, but that's not the situation," he said. "If you are waiting for that to happen before you get back to some kind of normality, sports-wise or otherwise, even work-wise, you're going to be waiting a long time. So we have to get on with it, which means that we have to play behind closed doors."
Klopp has been the catalyst for Liverpool’s success in ways beyond his tactical acumen. The Germany native has been a superb shopper in the global transfer market. Liverpool has this season’s third-highest payroll in the Premier League, but No. 1 spender Manchester United — coincidentally Liverpool’s biggest rival — is in fifth place. No. 2 spender Manchester City is in second place on the field, but its deficit in the standings is a whopping 23 points.
“It speaks volumes to the quality of Jurgen in terms of him being able to get the players that fit into what he actually wants, but the club and the fans have also backed that situation,” Barnes said. “There are players who we have signed — Fabinho, for example, and other players who may not have been world superstars, that under different circumstances the crowd would have been very negative because unless you sign a world-class player for 70 million [pounds], you’re seen as lacking ambition. Whereas if Jurgen Klopp signs Mickey Mouse, the fans will back him, because we know that he can get the best out of Mickey Mouse.”