The Press v. Raheem Sterling

Harry Stopes

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.


  • 7 July 2018 at 4:53am
    Joe Morison says:
    I completely agree: racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism - all the prejudices which we have had some success in defeating are still lurking just below the surface (the latter, regrettably, just as much on the left as the right); about the only hate that dares speak its name today is Islamophobia, but they are all bubbling away waiting to erupt at the slightest excuse. I’ve a friend who makes movies in Hollywood; he was told by someone very high up in Disney that the racism in the emails that passed between those at the very top of the corporation about John Boyega when he was cast in the latest Star Wars movies was truly hideous.
    At least Sterling has Gareth Southgate who gives the impression of genuinely having his back.

    • 8 July 2018 at 2:41am
      Ostrich says: @ Joe Morison
      Anti-semtisism is not "just as much on the left as the right"; that's just a right-wing smear. Here's a recent poll.

      Of course -as the poll shows - there too much anti-semitism on the left. But that's not the same as "as much".

    • 8 July 2018 at 4:04am
      Joe Morison says: @ Joe Morison
      It was good to see how warmly the English fans applauded him when he was substituted. I just hope he scores a winning goal, such is the fickleness of the press that’s been attacking him that he will instantly become their hero if he does.

    • 8 July 2018 at 4:38pm
      Robert says: @ Joe Morison
      Dead right,Joe

    • 9 July 2018 at 4:08am
      Joe Morison says: @ Ostrich
      You’ve chosen your moniker well, as you appear to have your head stuck in the sand. The poll you link to asks a specific set of questions which might have been designed to obscure the left’s anti-Semitism which is careful to hide itself behind a veneer of right-on-ness. It also shows that British Jews perceive a massively higher level toleration of anti-Semitism in the Labour party than they do in any other party (twice as much as in Ukip, four times as much as in the Tories); but you ignore that because - I can only suppose - you don’t think the opinion of Jews matters when it comes to anti-Semitism, that says everything about the value of your opinion on this. You’re like some Hollywood mogul who denies misogyny in his industry while blithely ignoring the opinion of women who experience it.

      I disagree with Nick Cohen about a lot of things, but in his piece in the Observer yesterday he nailed it.

    • 9 July 2018 at 11:19am
      Ostrich says: @ Joe Morison
      I am, in fact, Jewish. But no, I don't think the opinions of Jews are dispose. "In God we trust; everyone else has to bring data".

    • 9 July 2018 at 11:24am
      Ostrich says: @ Ostrich
      Dispositive, not "dispose". Argh. Anyway, if you have data - no, Nick Cohen's opinions are not data - then I'd be very happy to see it and stand corrected. In the meantime, here's some more.

    • 11 July 2018 at 4:40am
      Joe Morison says: @ Ostrich
      There’s data and data, hard individual facts or the sort of manipulated statistics that come from asking weighted questions like the ones in the first piece you linked to. I’m afraid I didn’t have the time to look at all of the 85 page your second link led to, so I’ll stick with a few obvious facts. The overwhelming perception of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party that exists among British Jews. The grotesque redefining of anti-Semitism by the Labour Party which runs against the internationally accepted definition and puts it down to the intent in the heart of the person making their comments, and the bizarre tone deafness of the Labour Party in so many recent instances.
      Things like the blindness to the blatantly anti-Semitic mural, and then there’s Ken Livingstone. I have been a big fan of Ken ever since his GLC days, but his statement that Hitler was a supporter of Zionism until he went mad and started killing all the Jews is grotesque. Zionism is the belief that there should be a successful Jewish state in Israel - that is not remotely what Hitler wanted, he wanted them out of Germany to somewhere where they could be easily disposed of later: there is a bit in Mein Kamph where he talks about the moment he suddenly realized that the Jews were responsible for all of Germany’s ills, he was a pathological Jew hater from that moment onwards. Such a statement from anyone on the right would have been met by howls of protest from the left, but because it was Ken and ‘he just couldn’t be an anti-Semite’ it was ignored until it became impossible to do so. And here’s the point: anti-Semitism on the left is not like it is on the right. On the right anti-Semites are prepared to admit, at least to themselves, that they don’t like Jews; almost no leftwing anti-Semites think like that, theirs is far subtler and more dangerous - it takes the form of an entirely out of proportion criticism of Israel combined with a conflation of Jews and capitalism. I hate Israel’s behaviour but the criticism of it is often totally out of proportion: the idea that it has no right to exist because of the crimes of its creation may have some force, but only if that same point applies to every other country. In the modern world the creation of Australia and all the American countries involved far greater crimes against the original inhabitants; and when one goes back in time, well, the crimes are lost history but would undoubtedly make anything that has happened in the last few hundred years look like a children’s picnic. The way ‘Zionist’ is used as term of abuse on the left is telling: all Zionism means is that the State of Israel has a right to exist, the fact it’s a slogan used to justify atrocities is irrelevant: an Israeli friend of mine calls herself a post-Zionist, and that seems about right, but to be an anti-Zionist is obscene, unless one opposes all national states (a position I’m not unsympathetic to).

  • 10 July 2018 at 12:22pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    The furore over the tattoo was plain ridiculous but adverse comments on Sterling's performance have little to do with racism. He struggles to finish - he has brought his form against Man U in the recent derby to this World Cup - and in Russia he has seemed to me to be particularly averse to using better-placed team mates, opting to run up many blind alleys. I too was relieved when he was substituted but I also hope he scores a winning goal sometime soon (not holding my breath).
    And, in spite of what Benzema says about his position in France, Sterling is fully accepted as an Englishman.

    It's coming home.

    • 11 July 2018 at 2:53pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      This article isn't about comments on Sterling's performances, adverse or otherwise. As a City fan, I'm well aware that Sterling could be better in one-on-one situations. The derby was, as you say, a case in point. But the media campaign (because that's what it is) of abuse (because that's also what it is), has nothing to do with his performances (which despite your reservations seem to please Southgate and Guardiola). So if it's not about his finishing, what is it? This is the point.

  • 17 July 2018 at 8:58pm
    vulpiani says:
    Re Joe Morison

    'Hard individual facts' - whatever that means. This is the world of Humpty Dumpty. 'Facts' are whatever JM says are 'facts'. Indeed, his facts are 'hard' facts, as opposed to the 'manipulated' facts of those with whom he disagrees. This is classic dishonest argument. JM is clearly not interested in any kind of debate - just in making assertions that must be true because he says they are true. Yes, let's treat 'every other country' in the same way - but when you want to privilege one country you totally undermine your pretence at intellectual credibility.

  • 18 July 2018 at 5:01pm
    jackadams says:
    Whilst the treatment of Sterling from certain members of the press (especially the gun tattoo) and he does suffer from the racism of the tabloids, his performances for the national team has been shocking. Unless you're a Man City fan (which I'm not) you won't give a toss about his clubs performances and his goals to game for England is awful. England had a great team at the World Cup but Sterling was undoubtedly the weak link in the team and I want to see Rashford given a chance in his place next match. For an attacking player to not contribute to any goals is awful and the press are quite justified to criticize him for his performances in Russia

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