Monday 23 September 2019

Paul Hayward: 'Raheem Sterling shines a light into football's darkest places'

City's star's Instagram post hits the nail on the head, but it's also the entire culture of abuse which the game must tackle

Raheem Sterling gets a shot on goal despite the close attention of Marcos Alonso. Photo: Getty Images
Raheem Sterling gets a shot on goal despite the close attention of Marcos Alonso. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

With his Instagram post after the Chelsea game, Raheem Sterling scored two goals with one shot. He called out the dehumanising abuse he endured at Stamford Bridge while also inviting us to think about the kind of societal racism that is too subtle to shout in your face over a hoarding at a football ground.

At the micro level there is urgent work to be done. Police and Chelsea Football Club must determine whether those fulminating 'fans' used the word 'black' in their tirade at Sterling.

A screen-shot of the moment when several Chelsea fans hurled verbal abuse at Raheem Sterling as he prepared to get a ball for a throw-in
A screen-shot of the moment when several Chelsea fans hurled verbal abuse at Raheem Sterling as he prepared to get a ball for a throw-in

The rule of law is the starting point, if there is sufficient evidence that racist language was a factor. Then it falls to football and the rest of us to confront the harder part.

First, to take Sterling's point, there is a belief on his part that the reporting of the lives of black footballers too often reflects an underlying prejudice which denies the right of black people to be as rich and successful as white ones.

The gist of his argument is that black players are portrayed as blingy and extravagant, while white colleagues are framed as conscientious and family-orientated.

This is a reasonable point to make, but with a caveat. There can be no get-out for individual racists, no line of self-exoneration that says: 'I have no free will, no agency - a newspaper website made me do it.'

So, on a Sunday morning of low spirits from what was otherwise a fine game with an intriguing outcome, the best policy is to declare: nobody gets out of this without being called to account.

If racist language was used, the perpetrators need to face criminal prosecution and be banned from all football grounds for life. To throw a racist out of one stadium merely invites him or her to start turning up at another.


Some black ex-players have argued powerfully that racist spectators should also be forced to undergo restorative justice in which they are made to confront the effect this kind of dehumanising abuse has on the victim.

But this is only the start. Football has an institutionalised, cultural problem with spectators thinking players have a contractual obligation to accept nasty personal abuse that would not be tolerated in an office, shop or factory.

Twenty rows back, it is background noise, not always heard by players. In the front row, over the hoardings, it arrives in the face, ears and soul of the player taking a throw-in or a corner kick. The bullies and sociopaths shout with impunity because they have won the argument that football is 'tribal' and thus a playground for degrading language.

The video of the Sterling incident shows Chelsea supporters displaying a sense of colossal entitlement while stewards and other fans seem unsure what to do.

Slogans, T-shirts and tweets endorsing the work of 'Kick It Out' will not remove this culture, which, emboldened by the political currents of our time in the UK, is undergoing a resurgence.

Condemnation is easy - facile, even. Statements expressing intolerance of "all forms of racism and discrimination" can be banged out rapidly.

For all the familiar moral writhing, Sterling, an inspirational figure in many ways "expects no better" at football grounds.

Evidently he assumes he will be abused each time he goes to work. This was the saddest line in his Instagram post, from an industry where black, Asian and minority ethnic people are institutionally under-represented in coaching, management, boardrooms and administrative roles in governing bodies - as are women.

Hundreds of Chelsea fans also sang "Raheem Sterling - he runs like a girl" several times. No other City player was individually mocked in this way, quite apart from what it says about the choir's view of women's football.

The Football Association's assertion that the upper reaches of football should "look like the rest of British society" is still a long way from realisation. From Sterling's critique of the Stamford Bridge incident there is a feeling that many non-white footballers see themselves as outsiders in their own industry, their own land - which a thousand supportive media articles and tweets will not cure.

Nor will platitudes from on high. The Premier League, clubs and the FA have the power to make grounds no-go areas for people to express xenophobic and racist hostility.

Supporters, too, are going to have to get better at self-policing, or at least supporting stewards who take physical risks by intervening.

Assume for a moment that no racist terms were used at Chelsea (a big assumption). Even then, in that reduced scenario, football is a game where spite is allowed to flow unchecked over a hoarding into the lives of people taking throw-ins or corners, to the detriment, possibly, of mental health. This simply does not happen in other major sports.

In football, stewards often spread their arms in a token gesture; in the VIP seats, owners, directors, bureaucrats and yes, sometimes journalists, avert their gaze. Everyone lives with a faint sense of guilt or shame, until a word - a racist term - creeps in that makes looking the other way temporarily impossible.

Sterling is telling us all: stop hiding, take action.

Daily Telegraph, London

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