Racism has reared its bold head back to our front pages again recently and we have been bombarded with think-pieces, interviews, radio call-ins and TV debates, all discussing where we are as sport and as a nation in our struggle with racism in this country. Football over the last decade has pushed its agenda towards equality and acceptance and this mustn't be lost amidst this discussion. Captains of all clubs in the Premier League adorned rainbow armbands in support of the LGBT community and the Premier League and the FA, in fairness, rarely seem to turn down an opportunity to show public gestures to causes and initiatives of the national interest, however, these incidents are bigger than football.
One of the biggest games of the season, Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur, ended up being one of the matches of the season with 6 goals, penalties, red cards, passion from the players and the fans... everything you could ask for. But it was marred by an ugly incident; a fan threw a banana on the field at the current premier league top goal-scorer Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. This incident blew over as quickly as it happened. The story was as easy to get rid of as the banana itself. The fan was banned, charged, condemned quietly and then... nothing. Spurs took the correct action against the fan and that was seen to be enough. It was looked at as an aberration rather than the deep-rooted sickness that racism is.
Less than one week later, Raheem Sterling’s 24th Birthday marked another marquee game for the Premier League: Chelsea vs unbeaten Manchester City. Yet again, fans displayed more vitriol towards a black footballer.
‘...You Black C*nt.’
Raheem Sterling laughs and continues to play.
These incidents have happened before and will surely happen again. Many players of all ethnicities and backgrounds face negative chants or attitudes for a variety of reasons. A lot of us will agree that it generally falls under the umbrella of banter and often adds to the atmosphere of games. Creating an intimidating environment for travelling teams is what most clubs aim to achieve. This time, however, Raheem Sterling focused his energy at the media. A new and interesting angle that has blown the debate wide open regarding how we view our stars. Looking at racism as bigger than any one club, or any singular fan, Sterling has pointed the finger at society’s largest influencers. The media have scrambled to rationalize what they see as fair game. Some journalists have looked to justify negative headlines with what I call the ‘all lives matter’ approach, stating that all players at this level face negativity from the press and it’s nothing to do with race. Others have looked to the behavior of Sterling himself, pointing towards actions, decisions that he has made or his lifestyle that have turned fans against him. These arguments can be debated as no player is perfect and fans are within their rights to support you or dislike you for whatever reason they choose. However, this does not absolve the media for they are being accused of: consistently producing headlines and articles that depict black players negatively.
Gary Neville said some interesting things on Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football, sharing a story about his personal dealings with Raheem Sterling and touching on his experience with other black players throughout his career. He highlighted that while all players had their struggles with the media, the black players had a ‘difference.’ Players when they did well were celebrated and exalted as national heroes, but this wasn’t the case for his black counterparts. Players like Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole who played and dominated at the highest level have been shifted to obscurity and have never truly received the credit they earned during their play. In comparison, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville both overcame personal low points and were thrust into post-playing careers as presenters of one of the most watched football shows in the UK.
What is interesting is the character traits deemed acceptable for black athletes and the fact that this runs deep into society. Black players must behave in a clean, polished manner in order to be deemed acceptable, otherwise they are demonised or cast aside. Players like Paul Pogba and Daniel Sturridge are seen to be more focused on their image than their skill; yet their professionalism is called into question for displaying behaviors that are deemed normal in the communities they come from.
The dangers of this negative imagery don’t just show themselves at football matches, but also in courtrooms, in confrontations with police, job interviews and other walks of everyday life. Sterling’s words have reminded the media of its responsibility and impact. Hopefully they take heed and take more care, and hopefully the public develops an eye to decipher good journalism from nonsense.