Tanya Lee | Raheem and racism in football
I wrote an article on June 1 about 'Raheem Sterling and the rifle tattoo', and on that occasion, my main hypothesis then was that this young man of only 23 years old was an exemplary figure in England and should be treated with less contempt by the British media. I recall then that Sterling was being denigrated by the British press, who described the young man as "disgusting" and "sickening" for his choice of the M16 rifle as body art, which was both an ode to his deceased father and a celebration of his talents when he shoots to goal from his right foot.
For me, much of the sentiments expressed about Sterling in the press at that point had obvious racial undertones that I felt would only serve to distract and degrade the young man, who was in preparation mode for the biggest challenge of his career - the FIFA World Cup. I couldn't understand why the media was so fixated on young Sterling, who, by all accounts, was an exemplary figure who rose from the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, to become one of the most youthful strikers to lift the English Premier League title.
Much of the articles I read about Sterling in the British press are so derogatory and distasteful that I've stopped reading them altogether. I recall he was continually being chided for things that had nothing to do with football in what can only be described as racial snobbery.
One paper scolded him for "overspending" on what they considered a "garish and vulgar" mansion complete with crystal-encrusted bathrooms that were out of keeping with the rural surroundings.
On another post, Sterling was being mocked for shopping at Primark and Greggs and described as looking for bargains at Poundworld.
He can't do anything right. I am left to think, given the level of disdain, that Sterling's main crime is that he is a young, rich and successful black man miles away from the land of his birth.
Fast forward to this week, and Sterling has finally spoken out on the stark differences between how the British media treats black players versus players of other racial descent. His sentiments have since received a wave of support from other players such as John Barnes and Gary Neville to name a few.
Barnes is of the view that racism is everywhere in British society and inside everyone, and has to be tackled at the social level and not just as it relates to sports. In an article published by the Guardian this week, Barnes writes: "We as a society view different groups of people based on the way they are reported. We read about Muslim grooming gangs, Jamaican Yardie gangs or Nigerian con men, but when a group of white people are guilty of the same crimes, there is no reference to race. If a Muslim commits murder, we cry terrorism even before we know their motivation, but if a white person does it, he's a lone wolf. Subtly and subliminally we have been given a negative perception of Nigerians, Jamaicans, and Muslims.
"People have been taught not just to have a negative perception of black people, but to have a belief in the superiority of white people. In times of stress, like the period we're living through in Britain today, people look for ways to communicate their superiority over others."
Barnes makes a few excellent points. Yes, racism exists in society, but the media does play a critical role in shaping public perceptions of groups of people and is guilty of perpetuating the negative perceptions.
Sadly, Barnes could be on to something, as socially, there seems to be a significant rise in incidents of racism in and out of football. Just this past February, the British-based sports organisation, Kick It Out, reported that there was a 59 per cent increase in instances of racial discrimination in football. The report revealed that racism was the highest reported form of discrimination, ahead of other types of abuse such as homophobia and anti-Semitism. A whopping 49 per cent of the reports were about the English Premier League.
Tackling racism is critical globally, and Sterling has done a great job in bringing this debate back into the spotlight. Now, football and society, in general, would benefit from a more significant effort by the media to stamp out racism and discrimination.
- Tanya Lee is a Caribbean sports marketer, author, and publicist. Follow her @tanyattlee on Instagram.