A beloved soccer program that has been a mainstay on British television since the 1960s has been thrown into turmoil after the BBC suspended the program’s host, the former English soccer star Gary Lineker, over comments that he made criticizing the Conservative government’s immigration policy.
By Saturday, the decision to remove Mr. Lineker from the program, “Match of the Day,” had sparked a boycott drew in not only his co-hosts, but also their potential replacements, related play-by-play commentators, and even players and coaches from the Premier League, which told the 12 teams set to play on Saturday that they would not receive interview requests — possibly to spare the broadcaster the indignity of having them rejected.
The BBC released a statement late Friday saying that “Match of the Day” would go ahead as scheduled, but without hosts or commentary. Instead, a spokesman for the BBC said, the program, which is watched by millions every week, will “focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry.”
Mr. Lineker, a former captain of England’s national soccer team and the top goal scorer at the 1986 World Cup, ignited a firestorm on the political right after he suggested on Tuesday that the British home secretary, Suella Braverman, was using language reminiscent of Nazi Germany to promote a plan to stop asylum seekers who arrive on boats across the English Channel.
After several days of debate played out on social media, in the pages of British newspapers and in the halls of Parliament, the BBC said on Friday that Mr. Lineker’s social media activity was “a breach of our guidelines,” and that he had been suspended from hosting “Match of the Day,” a fixture of the BBC’s broadcast schedule since 1964.
“The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting ‘Match of the Day’ until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media,” the BBC said in a statement.
“When it comes to leading our football and sports coverage, Gary is second to none,” the statement said. “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.”
”Match of the Day” features highlights from the weekend’s Premier League soccer games interspersed with commentary from former stars and interviews with players and coaches, but to call it a highlights show vastly understates its place in Britain as a beloved cultural touchstone. “Match of the Day” is so integral to the way English fans catch up on the day’s soccer results that the national news broadcasts that precede it warn viewers to look away from their screens before the scores are shown wordlessly — lest they spoil the drama to follow.
Soon after the BBC issued the statement about Mr. Lineker’s absence, the two other former star players who host the show alongside him each week, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, said they had told the BBC that they would not appear on the show on Saturday.
Within hours, a group of commentators scheduled to call individual matches on Saturday said that they, too, would refuse to take part in it. And by Saturday, reports from the BBC and other reporters suggested that players and coaches, perhaps with the support of their teams, would boycott contractual postgame interviews out of solidarity with Mr. Lineker.
The Professional Footballers’ Association, the union representing Premier League players, confirmed that players would not be asked to do interviews. It called the move to remove them from the dray “a common sense decision,” and said it had heard from members who expressed a desire to take a collective position in support of Mr. Lineker and any other commentators who had “chosen not to be part of tonight’s program.”
Mr. Lineker, who first appeared on “Match of the Day” as a presenter in 1999, signed a five-year contract in 2020 to remain with the BBC until 2025.
After parlaying his hugely successful soccer career into a career as one of Britain’s best-known sports personalities, Mr. Lineker has frequently engaged in debates on social media, most prominently when he supported the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union.
His comments have sometimes led to criticism from the right and accusations that he is violating the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality.
Such was the case with his comments on the government’s plan to expel asylum seekers. Mr. Lineker had responded on Twitter to a video posted by the Home Office, which oversees immigration enforcement, in which Ms. Braverman promoted legislation that would give the department a “duty” to remove nearly all asylum seekers who arrive on boats across the English Channel, even though many are fleeing war and persecution.
“Enough is enough,” Ms. Braverman declares. “We must stop the boats.”
Mr. Lineker responded with sharp criticism.
“This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?” he wrote.
The comments were roundly rejected by Ms. Braverman and others on the right, and set off a debate about the BBC’s impartiality and the comparison to Nazi Germany.
“It diminishes the unspeakable tragedy that millions of people went through, and I don’t think anything that is happening in the U.K. today can come close to what happened in the Holocaust,” Ms. Braverman said in an interview with the BBC this past week. “So I find it a lazy and unhelpful comparison to make.”
In The Daily Telegraph, the journalist Charles Moore accused Mr. Lineker of being “the most famous exemplar of the power of the BBC’s ‘talent’ to trash its impartiality.”
“He expresses not the voice of the concerned citizen, but the arrogance of a man of power,” Mr. Moore wrote. “He is the big player who thinks he can defy the ref. The reputation of the entire BBC and its director-general depends on telling him he cannot.”
On the political left, others defended Mr. Lineker and expressed dismay that the BBC had pulled him from “Match of the Day.”
“This feels like an over reaction brought on by a right-wing media frenzy obsessed with undermining the BBC,” Lucy Powell, a member of Parliament who serves as the opposition’s spokeswoman for digital, culture, media and sports matters, wrote on Twitter.