The story on Saturday night should have been how Chelsea’s spirited second half performance managed to completely turn the tables on an utterly dominant Manchester City side at Stamford Bridge. The passion shown by David Luiz when sealing the win for his team after a bad run of form for the Brazilian. The fact that despite City being outrageously good in the first half that as soon as N’Golo Kante managed to ghost into their box and put Chelsea in front, the game turned on a sixpence. Leading to debates about how far Liverpool can push City for glory: you know, football stuff. In the past few days though these things have faded into the background in the midst of the abuse (widely perceived as racial) received by Raheem Sterling by a group of Chelsea fans sitting in the front rows of the ground and Sterling’s own social media message in regard to the incident. The reaction to this incident and in particular Sterling’s response to it seems have spun British football on its axis as the ever ugly head of racist abuse has reared itself amongst what is shaping up to possibly one of the most exciting premiership seasons ever.
This latest example of abuse was directed at a depressingly unsurprising source, Raheem Sterling. The Man City and England forward has been at the end of undeserved public and media vitriol for seems like an eternity. Last Saturday’s incident was flagged up by former Arsenal striker and BBC pundit Ian Wright on Twitter as he shared a short video of handful of Chelsea fans hurling hate-filled abuse (whatever was actually said) at Sterling as he simply tried to retrieve the ball. The main offender from the video has since come out and said he didn’t use the word ‘black’ but instead ‘Manc’, yet the pure hatred written across his face is clear for all to see. And let’s face it, it’s extremely difficult to believe anything that comes of his mouth anymore after seeing what almost certainly came out of it on Saturday evening. What is also striking about the video isn’t just the abuse itself but Sterling’s non reaction to it, portraying the extreme likelihood that he is well used to it by now and as he put it himself in his powerful Instagram message that followed the day after ‘I just had to laugh’.
In fact, it wasn’t so much the abuse itself that has sparked such a reaction from those in and out of the footballing world but instead Sterling’s take on the incident, which he posted on Instagram on Sunday morning. In the post, after pointing out that he doesn’t expect any better from fans, he uses the example of two different young players at his club, one white (Phil Foden), one black (Tosin Adarabioyo) and how the Daily Mail portrayed their exact same action, buying their mother a house, in a completely different light. Foden’s lovely gesture is celebrated while Adarabioyo’s is questioned as he ‘has never started a premier league match’. Just as Sterling himself is often critcised for by some media outlets, a young black player is seen to be recklessly splashing his cash while his white counterpart is given the newspaper’s blessing when it comes to personal spending habits.
However, it isn’t necessarily the details of Sterling’s post that are crucial here but the fact that he decided to post it in the first place. As whether Sterling intended it to or not, it’s creation has reignited an issue that many within the footballing world and beyond still find it tough to address while simultaneously turning the spotlight back onto the media outlets that have seemed so eager to misrepresent him in the past.
As by Sunday evening, Sterling’s post was already garnering a lot of attention and reaction, most of it overwhelmingly positive. Rather than shrugging his shoulders and simply saying ‘well racism is bad but you know it is what it is, I have to deal it’, Sterling instead used a relevant example of media reporting that could very well be stoking the fires of potential racist abuse in football and sport in general. Now, let’s be clear here, it is completely unknown if Sterling’s abusers are or were influenced by certain newspapers in regard to his persona by the time he arrived to Stamford Bridge on Saturday, or if they simply don’t like the man for whatever reason your imagination could potentially grasp. However, it is not whether Sterling’s theory of media influence on fans is right or wrong that seems imperative here instead that these media outlets are held fully accountable for what they write about certain players, especially when it comes to their personal lives.
As as soon as Sterling’s post broke essentially every media outlet was put on the back foot on the issue, which I have to say as someone who despises the way Sterling in particular has been treated by certain newspapers (there’s no need to point out which ones) was a great sight to witness. Members of the Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports, were on air when Sterling’s statement was posted and immediately praised Sterling’s calling to attention of the ‘wider picture’ as well as hinting that their industry ‘should be more introspective and have a look at itself’. This tone of admittance and vague admission that there actually is something up with the way players of different races are portrayed in the media seemed to be mimicked across networks. Which simply wasn’t in the script of how things were supposed to go just twelve hours earlier. All of a sudden every relevant channel was scrambling to speak to black ex-players such as John Barnes and those associated with the Kick it Out organisation to hear their take on whether racism was still prevalent in the sport. Which despite it’s awkwardly coerced nature, is a step in the right direction. All because a young black player used his stardom and huge social media following to buck the trend of silence and diluted acceptance of an issue that perhaps isn’t getting better nearly as quickly as it should be.
So as Gary Neville stated on Monday Night Football ‘out of negative, there’s been a big positive’ and Sterling should be proud of that. Yet in truth, a troubling thought in regard to all this is that if Saturday’s game had not been televised then the abuse Sterling received probably wouldn’t have made its way onto Twitter let alone mainstream news outlets. Traditionally even if it did, there no doubt would been the lazy assertion of ‘it’s a few rotten eggs and that’s it’ in regard to racism in football and indeed society in general when clearly that isn’t the case. Since Sterling’s statement popular pundits, sports journalists and even managers (Pep Guardiola stated that ‘racism is everywhere) are being asked to talk about openly about whether they think that racism is still an issue in football and the answer seems to an overwhelming yes.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone as clearly Britain along with rest of the world has a long, long way to go when it comes eradicating racism and other forms of prejudice from the social fabric of life. Yet it’s again deeply troubling that within football in particular, it took a young player at the end of his tether with the endless amount of abuse he was receiving to bring the issue back into the forefront of minds. Let’s not forget that just six days before the Sterling Chelsea abuse, a banana skin was thrown at Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and no one really batted an eyelid when it came to media coverage of the incident. So in some ways its both a spiriting and depressing thought that it simply took a short Instagram post to disallow racism in football to be swept back under the carpet. Yet, one now hopes that Sterling’s post will give others who receive such vile abuse the confidence to step forward, even when the TV cameras do not catch those hate-filled faces that will surely continue to smear the game we love so dearly.
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