Raheem Sterling has had a pretty stellar season so far. The 24-year-old has scored 10 goals and 9 assists in his 24 appearances for Manchester City this season, as his team go toe-to-toe with Liverpool in the battle for the Premier League title while also have high hopes in the Champions League. However, the increasing frequency of his name being mentioned by the media, in the UK or globally, is not because of his on-field performances.
A bit of background before we go deeper, on December 8th 2018, Manchester City faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The high-profile match with the home team as the victors of the day, seeing off Sterling and co 2-0 and handing them their first PL loss this season. But something in the match caught the eyes of the masses and became a bigger talking point than the match itself.
At one point of the match, the ball had gone out of play. Sterling went on and pick the ball up near several Chelsea fans. Interestingly, the camera had caught several Chelsea supporters seemingly shouting some aggressive verbal language towards Sterling as he picked up the ball. The microphones didn’t pick up anything that they said, but seemingly, those words are too aggressive for anyone’s liking. The matter was then alleged as racist abuse and became the subject of investigation by Chelsea, the FA, and the Met Police. Chelsea then subsequently suspended four people from attending matches.
Now, these incidents involving racial abuse is no stranger in the footballing world. Just a week before Sterling’s case, a banana skin appeared to be hurled into the pitch towards the celebrating Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal’s Gabonese striker. It was later found out that a 57-year-old Tottenham fan was the perpetrator and admitted he threw it in a “spur of the moment” and said that “it wasn’t a racial thing”. Surely enough, the court wasn’t impressed and he was given a ban.
Former Barcelona defender Dani Alves was once thrown a banana as he was preparing a corner kick – he picked up the banana and ate it afterwards. Italy’s Serie A has seen a number of occasions where players get racially abused, like Mario Balotelli, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and most recently Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly.
In most instances, players then speak out on the abuse and point out that racism has no place in football. And more often than not – aside from some form of questionable punishments being given out – that’s pretty much the end of that. But what Sterling did, sparked a more weighted and lengthy discussion.
A day after the abuse, Sterling uploaded a post on Instagram highlighting two Daily Mail headlines on a similar topic but with seemingly different context to one another – one raised prejudice towards a young, black footballer, while the other has a more heartwarming nuance involving a white player. In his caption, Sterling noted “This young black kid is looked at in a bad light, which helps fuel racism and aggressive behaviour” and cried for “fair publicity and give all players an equal chance”. Sterling himself has been continuously on the receiving end of shoddy headlines by mainstream media, including an unfair scrutiny on his gun tattoo which was intended as a reminder for him not to be involved with weapons.
Sterling shed some light to the shadowy corner of the room that nobody really cared or dared to talk about. It provoked a thought that racism, either interpreted specifically in football or anywhere else, as not just one-off incidents where fans scream out racial abuse in one match, get banned for three matches, then do it again on the following match. It’s been implicitly expressed in mainstream media with little to no consequences, because no one said the n-word or threw a banana.
Independent’s Jonathan Liew described the structural, covert racism in the journalists’ workplace quite eloquently; “When a manager makes some racially-charged crack in the off-camera section of a press conference, they are generally met not with awkward silence, but hearty laughter, because this is football, and let’s be mates.”
The nature of “instinctively clandestine culture – off-the-record briefings, anonymous sources, the sort of in-house omerta that claims to uphold professional solidarity” in British media, or perhaps many other environments in the rest of the world, gives way to the permissive behaviour towards those blatant yet covert structural racism – the fact that it can be described as “covert” should serve enough proof. Furthermore, as Liew points out, the problem can lie on the widespread misconception that racism can only be attributed to certain acts or incidents.
“You see, there’s long been a fundamental problem with the racism debate in this country: a startling number of people don’t really know what it is. Never suffered it, never been affected by it, never really examined it in any great detail. And thus labouring under the first misconception of racism: that it is, essentially, all about incidents. That it must consist of a single, discrete act. That it has to be intentional. Put more simply: there’s an extremely high proportion of the population who believe that racism is simply stuff like shouting the N-word, putting a brick through a window, desecrating a Jewish cemetery, throwing bananas, and nothing else.”
Perhaps there’s more than meets the eye when Inter Milan fans launch racial abuse towards Senegalese Kalidou Koulibaly. Maybe West Ham manager, Manuel Pellegrini, was misguided when he said “I don’t think we should continue talking about [racism]. You give too much importance to some small people that have stupid minds”. When something recurs as much as this, you can’t simply brush it off and attribute them to some small people and dismiss them.
Elliot Ross, who writes for Al-Jazeera, came up with a rather more radical and more uncomfortable notion, that the case with Sterling lies on white masculine anxieties. He also highlighted that racism cannot be lazily attributed to the rather alienated, small section of “white working class” – which is what Pellegrini might have implied – but instead he pointed out that racism “is a major societal malaise which has infected all structures and institutions of the British state and which has been propagated by the educated middle class and the self-serving elite.”
This notion might have wider implications than in the footballing world. Ross even attributed this societal issue to how Brexit came to fruition. Furthermore, it transcends into how governments run their countries; Ross referred to the criticism by UN Special Rapporteur on Racism Tendayi Achiume towards “a host of government policies, including the “hostile environment” measures for migrants, the putative anti-terror initiative “Prevent”, racism in policing and criminal justice, and the especially pronounced harms of economic austerity on communities of colour and black women in particular”.
To go back on Sterling’s case, I find it concerning that the things players like John Barnes experienced in the 1980’s and 1990’s can also be experienced by a 24-year-old in 2018. If racism – or also the question of intolerance and xenophobia for that matter – is sincerely considered as a real, destructive problem in society, then it has been wrongly dealt with in the past decades, as shown by its constant recurrence.