Former England captain Gary Lineker was temporarily removed on Friday from his role as presenter of the BBC’s flagship soccer highlights show in the wake of his criticism of the British government’s new asylum policy.
The long-running “Match of the Day” program, which has been a national institution in Britain since the 1960s, will be aired on Saturday “without studio presentation or punditry,” the BBC said in an extraordinary development after a slew of Lineker’s colleagues announced they wouldn’t appear on the show without him.
In a post on Tuesday on his Twitter account that has 8.7 million followers, Lineker — one of England’s greatest soccer players and now among the U.K.’s most influential media figures — compared lawmakers’ language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.
The BBC considers Lineker posting such views on social media as a breach of its guidelines. The network said it held discussions with Lineker over his involvement in “Match of the Day,” which is broadcast on Saturday nights and shows highlights of English Premier League games that day.
“The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting ‘Match of the Day,’” the broadcaster said, “until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media.
“We have never said that Gary should be an opinion-free zone, or that he can’t have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies.”
Lineker has yet to make an official comment, though one of his former colleagues on the BBC — Dan Walker — said he had been in contact with Lineker and asked him “whether he is stepping back or whether the BBC have told him to step back.”
Walker said Lineker replied to him that the BBC “told me I have to step back.”
“So Gary Lineker wants to continue to present ‘Match Of The Day’ and is not apologizing for what he has said,” Walker said on Channel 5, where he works, “but he has said it’s a BBC decision to force him to not present the program at the moment.”
In solidarity with Lineker, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright — former England players who work as pundits on “Match of the Day” — said on Twitter they would not be appearing on the program this weekend.
After more of his BBC co-workers, like former soccer players Alex Scott, Jermaine Jenas and Micah Richards, said they would not want to work on “Match of the Day” because of the treatment of Lineker, the BBC took the decision to change the format of the show.
“Some of our pundits have said that they don’t wish to appear on the program while we seek to resolve the situation with Gary,” the BBC said.
“We understand their position and we have decided that the program will focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry.”
Conservative lawmakers in Britain have called on the BBC to discipline Lineker, the network’s highest-paid star on 1.35 million pounds ($1.6 million) last year, for saying the government’s plan to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat is “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 government has called Lineker’s Nazi comparison inappropriate and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said he should be fired.
The 62-year-old Lineker was a household name in Britain well before he became a smooth, knowledgeable presenter of sports shows on the BBC and other broadcasters. He was the leading scorer at the 1986 World Cup and finished his international career with 48 goals in 80 matches for England.
His club career included spells with Barcelona, Tottenham, Everton and Leicester.
The BBC, which is funded by a license fee paid by all households with a television, has a duty to be impartial and news staff are barred from expressing political opinions. As a freelancer who doesn’t work in news or current affairs, Lineker isn’t bound by the same rules and he often delves into politics and human rights issues with his tweets.