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BBC crisis escalates as players and stars rally behind soccer host Gary Lineker

Soccer broadcaster Gary Lineker arrives ahead of the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Chelsea in Leicester, England on  Saturday.
Mike Egerton
/
PA via AP
Soccer broadcaster Gary Lineker arrives ahead of the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Chelsea in Leicester, England on Saturday.

LONDON — The BBC was forced to scrap much of its weekend sports programming as the network scrambled to stem an escalating crisis over its suspension of soccer host Gary Lineker for comments criticizing the British government's new asylum policy.

As a growing number of English Premier League players and BBC presenters rallied to Lineker's support and refused to appear on the airwaves on Saturday, Britain's national broadcaster faced allegations of political bias and suppressing free speech, as well as praise from some Conservative politicians.

The broadcaster said it would air only "limited sport programming" this weekend after hosts of many of its popular sports shows declined to appear, in solidarity with Lineker. The former England captain was suspended from "Match of the Day," a popular soccer highlights show, over a Twitter post that compared lawmakers' language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his first comments on the storm, saying: "Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter. I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government."

Instead of blanket coverage on Saturday of the most popular league in the world, the BBC had no preview shows on radio or TV and no early evening summary of the final scores of Premier League games. Lunchtime TV program "Football Focus" was replaced with a rerun episode of antiques show "Bargain Hunt," while early evening "Final Score" was swapped for "The Repair Shop."

Soccer fans tuning in for "Match of the Day" — the late-night program that has been a British institution for 60 years — will be getting a 20-minute show instead of one typically lasting around an hour and a half. There will be no commentary on the matches and no studio punditry from some of the most high-profile stars in the British game who have chosen to support Lineker and not work.

There will not be any post-match player interviews, either. The Professional Footballers' Association said some players wanted to boycott the show, and as a result "players involved in today's games will not be asked to participate in interviews with 'Match of The Day.'"

The union said it was a "common sense solution" to avoid players facing sanctions for breaching their broadcast commitments.

The BBC said it was "sorry for these changes which we recognize will be disappointing for BBC sport fans. We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon."

Lineker, 62, was a household name in Britain even before he became chief "Match of the Day" presenter in 1999.

One of English soccer's most lauded players, he was the leading scorer at the 1986 World Cup and finished his international career with 48 goals in 80 matches for England.

After retiring from a career that included stints with Barcelona, Tottenham, Everton and Leicester, Lineker has become one of the U.K.'s most influential media figures and the BBC's best-paid star, earning 1.35 million pounds ($1.6 million) last year.

An enthusiastic social media user with 8.7 million Twitter followers, Lineker has long irked right-of-center politicians and activists with his liberal views, including criticism of Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

The latest controversy began with a tweet on Tuesday from Lineker's account describing the government's plan to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat as "an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s."

The Conservative government called Lineker's Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said he should be fired.

In his statement on Saturday, Sunak doubled down on his party's policy.

"As Prime Minister," he said, "I have to do what I believe is right, respecting that not everyone will always agree. That is why I have been unequivocal in my approach to stopping the boats."

Sunak said it was the only way to "break this cycle of misery once and for all."

"There are no easy answers to solving this problem," he added, "but I believe leadership is about taking the tough decisions to fix problems. I know not everyone will always agree, but I do believe this is fair and right."

On Friday, the BBC said Lineker would "step back" from "Match of the Day" until it had "an agreed and clear position on his use of social media." Lineker has yet to comment publicly, and on Saturday went to his hometown of Leicester to watch Leicester City play Chelsea in the Premier League. He was greeted with cheers from bystanders as he arrived for a match Chelsea won 3-1.

The 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by a license fee paid by all households with a television, has a duty to be impartial in its news coverage, and BBC news staff are barred from expressing political opinions.

Lineker, as a freelancer who doesn't work in news or current affairs, isn't bound by the same rules, and has sometimes pushed the boundaries of what the BBC considers acceptable. Last year, the BBC found Lineker breached impartiality rules with a tweet about the Conservatives' alleged Russian donations.

BBC neutrality has come under recent scrutiny over revelations that its chairman, Richard Sharp — a Conservative Party donor — helped arrange a loan for then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021, weeks before Sharp was appointed to the BBC post on the government's recommendation.

Former BBC Director General Greg Dyke said the network "undermined its own credibility" by appearing to bow to government pressure.

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the BBC was "caving in" to political pressure from Conservative lawmakers.

"They got this one badly wrong and now they're very, very exposed," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press