The Press v. Raheem Sterling
Last season Raheem Sterling was a linchpin of the best club football team that England has seen in at least a decade. Manchester City smashed records, winning 100 points and scoring 106 goals, 18of which came from Sterling (he assisted a further 11 of them). He is one of the best footballers of any nationality currently playing in this country. He is also the subject of a relentless campaign of abuse in the English media which deploys racist tropes about young black men in order to put him down.
As well as being called an ‘idiot’, he has been described as ‘flashy’, ‘cocky’, ‘bling bling’ or ‘greedy’ for demanding a wage commensurate with his ability and the norms of his industry. When he bought his mother an expensive house, the Sun called him ‘obscene’. Last December, on his way into City’s training ground, he was physically assaulted and called the n-word by a Manchester United fan. (He scored two goals later that day as City thrashed Spurs.) Even England’s narrow victory over Colombia on Tuesday was used by the Mail as an opportunity to take another pop at him. A recent profile of Harry Kane in the Mail, by contrast, described the Tottenham striker’s £2.5 million home as ‘relatively unpretentious’ and called him ‘a football hero England can be proud of’.
When Sterling wrote about his family for the Players’ Tribune,describing the sacrifices his single mother made during his childhood, Tom Goodenough argued in the Spectator that it must have been ghostwritten. It’s an open secret that articles on the site, founded by the baseball player Derek Jeter, are sometimes ghostwritten or transcribed from conversations – but then so are many columns in the ‘serious’ press. The Spectator doesn’t publish articles complaining that the prime minister may not have written every word attributed to her on the Times comment page.
Most notoriously, Sterling has been attacked over a tattoo of a gun on his right calf. The Sun said that the tattoo glorified violence, and that Sterling should apologise, and perhaps have it surgically removed. He explained that it was a tribute to his father, shot dead when Sterling was two. ‘I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my lifetime,’ he wrote on his Instagram page. Sky Sports misquoted the statement, adding the word ‘again’ after ‘gun’. Jordan Pickford, the Everton and England goalkeeper, has a tattoo of a dagger on his arm; he has not been asked to apologise to stabbing victims.
Football – on the field at least – is one of the few genuine meritocracies. Young men from Gelsenkirchen, Moss Side or Saint Denis really can reach the top of the profession, and frequently do.European national sides have been transformed in the last few decades. England isn’t alone in singling out its best players for racially coded criticism. After Germany’s embarrassing exit at the group stage of the World Cup, the German press focused their blame on players such as Mesut Özil, rather than Thomas Müller or Manuel Neuer. Bild even labelled Özil, Ilkay Gundoğan and Jerome Boateng ‘the bling bling gang’.
France, meanwhile, may be celebrating the sensational teenager Kylian Mbappé, whose parents came to Paris from Cameroon and Algeria, but the national federation has been dogged by accusations of racism for years, especially after secret recordings were released in 2011 of the then manager, Laurent Blanc, advocating the introduction of quotas for non-white players. The striker Karim Benzemahas remarked that he is accepted as French only when he plays well. Otherwise, he’s Algerian.
Football has long been an arena for the public policing of behaviour and belonging. It doesn't only affect black players – remember the gendered abuse of 'pretty boy' David Beckham, or the labelling of Robbie Fowler as a ‘smackhead’ – but there is a particular vocabulary of abuse employed against black players. The message being sent to European footballers of non-European descent is that their belonging is always provisional. The consequences for Sterling are relatively slight – he is a millionaire, a star player for his club and country, and well-liked by most football fans – but it is no exaggeration to say that the logic underpinning his mistreatment by the press is the same as the logic behind the deportation of British people being sent ‘home’ to a Jamaica they knew only as children.