The Football Association on Monday said it is investigating crowd-related incidents at Millwall and Colchester United that involved supporters booing players taking a knee during their games on Saturday.
Millwall's Championship (second-tier) home game against Derby County was among the first to see a return of supporters to stadiums since the start of Britain's COVID restrictions in March but was marred by loud booing from 2,000 fans as players took a knee. Fans also booed the gesture at Colchester's League Two (fourth-tier) match at home to Grimsby Town on Saturday.
"The FA can confirm that investigations are under way into crowd-related incidents at both The Den and JobServe Community Stadium on Saturday 5 December 2020," the governing body said in a statement. "Observations have been sought from all of the relevant parties and they will have until Thursday 10 December 2020 to provide their respective responses."
Fans of Millwall were condemned by the FA, Kick it Out — a long-running campaign to rid the English game of racism — and many others.
Millwall said they were "dismayed and saddened" by the booing while their official fan club said their supporters were not motivated by racism and that the boos were aimed at the "Black Lives Matter" (BLM) organization, which it said held "extreme political views.”
"We fervently believe that the motives of those behind the booing were not racist," the Supporters' club said in a statement. "However, at a time of heightened awareness, the choice of those individuals was always going to damage their club and be perceived by the media as racist.
"Anyone who believes it was a racist act should read the views of those who booed and see they were doing it in reaction to the war memorials and statues of (Winston) Churchill defaced by the BLM organization and the extreme political views they hold and for which ‘taking the knee’ is associated with."
Players in England have been taking a knee before matches since June in support of the BLM movement, which spread around the world following protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in May. The Premier League and Football League have since linked the kneeling gesture to their own anti-racism campaigns, including "No Room for Racism”.
"These same fans have never booed the Kick It Out campaigns on our pitch or the huge work of the Millwall Community Trust and its many anti-racism campaigns," added the supporters' club.
Colchester owner and chairman Robbie Cowling said those who wanted to show opposition were not welcome at games.
"Maybe those that booed on Saturday might now understand what this gesture means to our club and will at the very least remain silent during future games whilst the players continue to take the knee before each kick-off," he wrote in a statement on the club's website.
Junior Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said on Monday that while he had "concerns and criticisms" about BLM as an organization, he backed kneeling in support of those fighting against racism.
"It is absolutely wrong for football fans to boo players, or indeed anybody else doing so," he told the BBC.
Kick It Out Chairman Sanjay Bhandari said the attempt to portray the booing as a "political disagreement" with BLM was "complete and utter nonsense.”
"Every time there is greater public focus on the fight against racial discrimination, there is always a backlash," he said. "Racists rarely admit they are racists — they try to hide their backlash under a seemingly respectable cloak."