Michael Holding has a simple message for all sportsmen and women as they navigate the issue of racism in 2021: “If you don’t kneel, I know where you stand”.
The West Indies cricketing great never intended to become a lightning rod for the anti-racism cause, and spent many of his 67 years actively avoiding the battleground.
But he grasped the nettle in unforgettable fashion in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, filling a rain delay during England’s first home Test of 2020 with a passionate call to arms that turned heads and, much later, won awards.
This week he re-enters the fray with the publication of his new book ‘Why We Kneel, How We Rise’, a sober, densely researched account of racial discrimination partially told through discussions with leading athletes including Usain Bolt, Thierry Henry, Michael Johnson and Naomi Osaka.
And while the gesture popularised by American footballer Colin Kaepernick is merely a jumping off point for a deeper study, it is one that means a lot to Holding.
“I’m not a policeman, I’m not here to direct people in how they should or should not behave, but this is a cause,” he told the PA news agency.
“If you think you need to support the cause then you take the knee, that is the worldwide recognition. A good human being should want to support this cause. If you don’t support it, if you don’t kneel, I know where you stand.
“You can’t just sit back and say ‘I’m not racist’, you have to point out racism and speak up against it.”
Holding was critical of the England Test team when they shelved the knee last year after just six matches, against the West Indies and Ireland, and have latterly started staging ‘moments of unity’ instead.
“I think it is something they might be looking back on and regretting,” he said.
“I was very, very disappointed with what took place last summer. As soon as the West Indies turned their backs it was ‘ok…we don’t have to do this any longer’. That, as far as I’m concerned, shows you the attitude of English cricket. I never got a good answer for it. They don’t have one, so they can’t give one.”
Holding was initially reluctant to put pen to paper, feeling his stirring appearances in front of the cameras had said enough. That is when he began to receive messages from a handful of A-list stars who shared his views and wanted to talk.
First among them was Henry, footballing royalty who regaled Holding with an illuminating story about his time with MLS franchise New York Red Bulls.
He recalled: “Thierry spoke about calling an Uber and how the driver took one look at him and just kept on going.
“He said to me ‘Mikey, America doesn’t know Thierry Henry. Here, I am back to being ‘a black man’.
“I felt he was just waiting for other people to speak so he could join and voice their opinion. It is hard when you’re on your own. But when you have other people, it is a lot easier. Thierry was just waiting for that opportunity and he has jumped in each time. He has so many million followers, people will listen.”
Almost everyone on Holding’s wish-list ended up contributing, though he admits attempts to involve Lewis Hamilton and Anthony Joshua were unsuccessful. Each voice contributes to a picture that the author admits can be “gory” and “upsetting” but the book ends with a note of cautious optimism that he holds firm to.
“Some people will see this as a criticism of white people. There will be people who want to throw this book in the garbage and not accept it, but I would expect that to be a minority,” he said.
“I’m not a fool, I don’t expect racism to die. Expecting racism to die is like expecting crime to stop – it isn’t going to happen, but the less of it you have the better.
“Racism has been going on for centuries, it’s not going to stop over a weekend. This is about education, it’s about teaching the true history. If there are people who take that on board and they are willing to learn, we should see progress.”
:: Why We Kneel, How We Rise’ (S&S UK) by Michael Holding is available in all formats from Thursday