The role of the media in shaping popular thought towards race, culture and politics has historically been a topic of contention and controversy from as far back as the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, where newspapers depicted the assimilation of ‘windrush’ migrants as a toxic threat to national identity. However, in a modern society fractured along polarising ideological and cultural lines, the responsibility of the media is arguably more important now than ever before. When Raheem Sterling took to Instagram to take a stand against the discriminatory abuse he has endured, he shed an important spotlight on the relationship between journalists and their portrayal of Black and minority ethnic public figures. Most importantly of all, he has raised an issue that transcends the isolated bubble of sport: that of the significance of overt and covert racism and its entrenchment within public consciousness.
Sterling took to Instagram to address the vile abuse he suffered from a section of Chelsea fans
Raheem Sterling is an astute, humble character who has established himself as one of the brightest and most talented players in the Premier League. In an article in The Players’ Tribune earlier this year, he reminisced on his journey to prominence. He arrived from Jamaica after his father was murdered when he was just 2 years old and went on to fulfil his dreams of becoming an international footballer. On the surface, this resembles the archetypal fairy-tale story all young, aspiring athletes can only dream of. Yet if you have read certain papers’ coverage of Raheem Sterling over the past 5 years, you are presented with a very different image. A consistently negative and racialized narrative has depicted an arrogant, flashy, greedy celebrity obsessed with cars and jewellery. When Sterling took to Instagram to address the vile abuse he suffered from a section of Chelsea fans, his message was both sophisticated and influential in its content. He didn’t just call for anti-racism measures, but illuminated what he sees as the heart of this problem: the media’s treatment and portrayal of young, black athletes.
Sterling highlighted the example of how the same newspaper that had applauded young City star Phil Foden for buying his mother a £2m house, conversely scrutinized 21-year-old black teammate Tosin Adarabioyo for doing the exact same thing. The dramatic contrast in headlines and tone is overwhelming and explicit: “I think this is unacceptable, both innocent, have not done anything wrong but just by the way it has been worded, this young black kid is looked at in a bad light, which helps fuel racism and aggressive behaviour.”
Greater pathways to ethnic minority representation in journalism and football need to be realised
Fundamentally, the Sterling saga reveals the inherent misconceptions surrounding both the media and society’s comprehension of race, culture and identity. For many, the racism debate is contextualized within an overly simplistic and binary narrative: you’re either a racist or you’re not. It suggests that racism is reduced to a single act of aggression and violence such as throwing bananas or shouting the N-word at a player. This is a dangerously comfortable rationalization that only serves to perpetuate racial discrimination by isolating this behaviour to a minority of radical offenders. It cultivates a culture where journalists and critics show concern and condemn this behaviour for a week, before moving on to the next big story while the disease of racism in sport continues in a vicious cycle for decades. This encapsulates the reality that too many people have overlooked. The notion that racism can be structural and endemic; subtle, subliminal and unconscious in shaping bias and social rhetoric. In this way, Sterling’s message is transformative and relevant precisely because he has connected the explicit violent act of public racism with the unacknowledged bias that pervades the media.
But is it really a surprise that 25 years on from the toxic, racially charged culture of 1980’s British football that we are still having this debate? You don’t need to look far within the media itself to see the systemic fractures of this problem. There is a remarkable lack of diversity and huge under-representation of BAME voices in the written press and broadcast media that contributes to this subliminal culture. The Black Collective of Media in Sport (BCOMS) research discovered just one black sports writer was sent to cover the World Cup out of 63 journalists from the national newspapers sent to Russia. Only 9% of the Football Writers’ Association are from BAME backgrounds. A similar pattern is evident on an institutional level in respect to the lack of black coaches and executives throughout the game. This systemic disparity ingrained within the hierarchy of football’s institutions inevitably leads to favourable treatment to existing networks of patronage and unconscious discrimination against coaches from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is not saying that football is inherently racist and bigoted. But greater pathways to ethnic minority representation in journalism and football need to be realised in order to push back on the prejudices that contribute to cultural alienation of BAME public figures.
Sterling’s message has the potential to be a watershed moment in inspiring others to speak out
This isn’t a new, unprecedented phenomenon by any means. For too long, the issue of race has been looked at as an uncomfortable, taboo topic that the media is reluctant to explore transparently. In his analysis on Monday Night Football, Gary Neville himself admitted to this instinct: “There have been times on this show that we have not taken the subject (of racism) on.” There is no easy solution to this problem but the key to progress is establishing an open dialogue and discussion surrounding the rhetoric of race and culture in the media.
In a broader political context, we live in a society where Brexit has empowered more aggressive views about race and culture, and so it is imperative that this debate does not fade away into obscurity as merely the story of the week. Following in the footsteps of black athletes like Colin Kaepernick, Sterling’s message has the potential to be a watershed moment in inspiring others to speak out and break the stigma of being labelled a ‘problem player.’ Words matter. One look at social media reveals a society where the lines between sport and divisive politics and ideologies are increasingly being blurred. Athletes are recognising that they can use their global platform to initiate change in attitudes towards race and culture.
Undoubtedly, this is a story that transcends the confines of sport and is a reflection of our current society. Time will tell, however, if the Sterling saga will be a force for influential change in coverage of race within the media and journalism, or merely a footnote in the vicious cycle of racial discrimination in sport. Either way, a continuous process of education, awareness and sensitivity is paramount in addressing the ugly side of the ‘beautiful game.’