The BBC is going to have to learn what Gary Lineker already knows – sport is political
For a programme that was only ever supposed to be about the goals, Match of the Day has now become about something else entirely - not least the future of the programme, the BBC and the very role of football within politics.
The news of Gary Lineker’s departure was quickly followed by Ian Wright, and then Alan Shearer, announcing they will not be available this Saturday out of solidarity. The levy has broken. Something had to give, especially with how politicised sport has become.
This is a new era, and one the BBC and its flagship football programme are going to have to adapt to and have a real think about.
There is a huge irony to the fact this entire episode could initially have been cast as a case of football being used to distract the masses, in the manner the sport has repeatedly been politically criticised. A story that had started with a disgraceful immigration bill being typically and cynically used by the Conservative government to divert from a country falling apart somehow evolved into a mass discussion about a tweet from a football broadcaster. It was remarkable and seemed another example of a country losing its perspective… until now.
As has tended to happen with the game of late, its truly national role means it doesn’t just reflect society but has now forced the country to look at itself anew - above all the national broadcaster’s approach to coverage.
This is how the game, far from being a distraction, has always been a vehicle for political self-expression.
It is arguably fitting if not outright inevitable that it is Lineker that has provoked this because, long before Twitter, he was a broadcaster willing to tackle grander issues. He had helped push broadcasting into a new era, and it is to his credit that he is now arguably known more for this than being one of England’s greatest strikers. This approach was effusively taken up by Wright, who has been one of the great proponents of using football for the greater good.
This world in which a modern footballer such as Marcus Rashford could prove to be one of the biggest problems for the government.
And yet it is territory that Match of the Day and other connected programmes have struggled to find their feet on.
There are of course side discussions to be had over the exact wording of Lineker’s tweet, whether freelance contractors should be subjected to the same guidelines as staff and the very debate over the nature of those guidelines, but that’s what they are… side discussions.
This is now about something much bigger and, as far as football goes, the place of its flagship programme.
That brand - one of the most powerful in sport - has now been detonated by the most short-sighted approach.
A further irony to this is that, as politicised as the sport and some of its main broadcasters had become, Match of the Day had generally sought to avoid this.
We are in a new football world where nation states with problematic human rights records are using and taking over the sport but, far from any sort of scrutiny on this, it is celebrated.
The issue is these things can’t hold indefinitely. There eventually has to be a break.
That is what has happened here with Lineker and now by extension Match of the Day.
A short-sighted and compromised solution that never fully fitted and was never grounded in reality eventually came apart.
It is not to the benefit of Match of the Day, not to the benefit of the BBC and certainly not of benefit to the football supporter or casual viewer.
It is like trying to avoid reality and truth rather than confront it.
That is where we are now with this Lineker story and makes the reality going forward for Match of the Day - and, really, the BBC’s entire football output - very uncertain.
A figure as influential as Wright pulling out in solidarity will cause further waves.
How will any presenter who does Match of the Day this weekend look? How can it credibly discuss anything?
Will it be pulled?
This also comes down to an issue of trust.
This is where the game is in 2023.
It is inherently political and has duly provoked a story that has gone far beyond football - but, crucially, may change how we see it.