Boris Johnson should “publicly support” England footballer Marcus Rashford and his team mates in “taking the knee”, former PM Gordon Brown has said.
He told the BBC that players were “bringing the whole country together” by adopting the pre-match gesture, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Mr Rashford said taking the knee – set to continue through England’s Euro 2020 campaign – was the “right thing to do”.
But it has provoked booing from some sections of the crowd recently.
Downing Street has urged fans to be” respectful” of the players’ decision, but it has not condemned the supporters who jeered when England played Austria and Romania in pre-tournament warm-up matches in Middlesbrough.
And education minister Gillian Keegan said taking the knee was “creating division”, claiming Black Lives Matter believed in “defunding the police and the overthrow of capitalism”.
But, speaking on the BBC’s Political Thinking with Nick Robinson podcast, Mr Brown said the team had taken a “difficult decision”.
He added: “I don’t think it was right for Downing Street not to support Marcus Rashford.
“Marcus Rashford has stood up for some really good causes over the last year, but he’s also stood up for far better race relations and community relations in this country. So we should support the team when it does this.
“I hope that the crowds… will actually acknowledge that the footballers are doing something very important and bringing the whole country together.”
Mr Brown, who was Labour prime minister from 2007 to 2010, told Nick Robinson he would “like Boris Johnson to come out publicly to support the England football team in what they do”.
He warned it would be “bad for Britain” if “culture wars started to develop” and “people seized on one instance of someone doing something and trying to make it a big issue that divided the public rather than united the public”.
Asked about the booing on Sunday, Mr Rashford said: “It’s something that we can’t control, and for us we believe [taking the knee is] the right thing to do, so we’re going to continue to do it.”
England manager Gareth Southgate has said his team’s gesture, adopted throughout the last Premier League season, is not “political” but an attempt to highlight racial injustice.
Wales will also take the knee at Euro 2020.
However, Scotland’s team will stand rather than kneel before their matches, with manager Steve Clarke describing the message behind taking the knee as having become “maybe a little bit diluted”.
On BBC One’s Question Time on Thursday, Ms Keegan said people were “perfectly free” to take the knee, but added it was “symbolism more than action”.
And she said it was “creating division”, adding: “And by the way, the people who are booing, I’m pretty sure most of them would like to end racism as well. They disagree… there’s different things that people are interpreting.
“There are some Conservative MPs [who] are very much against it. Why? Because Black Lives Matter stands for things that they don’t stand for. It’s really about defunding the police and the overthrow of capitalism, which is, you know, Black Lives Matter, the actual political organisation.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he “absolutely” backed the “symbolism of reminding the world of how painful it is to be subjected to the racism that Marcus Rashford has been subjected to”.
He added: “If you then extrapolate to a Black Lives Matter movement that has a political agenda… that’s a different place… which is why I think we just have to differentiate and rightly back our team.”
Author and comedian David Baddiel, who co-wrote the England fans’ anthem Three Lions, accused the prime minister of “playing a culture war game, like the rest of politicians at the moment”.
“If you’re a fan of a football team, particularly perhaps England, don’t boo them,” he told Today.
“Don’t boo the players… because the whole point about being a fan is that you want the team to do well.”
American footballer Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the pre-game national anthem in the NFL in 2016, in protest at police violence against African-Americans.
Since last year, when the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US, many sportspeople around the world have chosen to take the knee.
Nick Robinson’s interview with Gordon Brown will be broadcast at 17:30 BST on Saturday on BBC Radio 4. It will also be available on BBC Sounds.