Photo by Ronnie MacDonald.
Sports / Soccer

The Resurgence of Racism in British Football

Imagine walking into your workplace. You’re young, relatively new to the company, but you have built up an impressive portfolio of work. Many of the people who doubted your intellect, work-ethic, and competence when you first started now have no choice but to recognize your excellence and commitment to your job. There are a lot of people that rely on you day in and day out. There are also a lot of people in the industry that want nothing more than to see you fail.

Now imagine that those people who want to see you fail are allowed to sit in your office. Imagine that they get to do just about anything to put you off your game. Verbal abuse is not only in play, but in style. Your mother, your kids, your wife…nothing is off limits. Not even racial epithets. Not even calling you a “black c-nt.”

This is a tough reality to imagine for some, but not for many black, professional athletes, and especially not for Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, who was on the receiving end of this very slur from a Chelsea fan on December 8th.

It was no coincidence that on the same day that Sterling was racially abused at the Bridge, Motherwell Football Club’s Christian Mbulu received racial abuse from about 20 fans in the main stand at Tynecastle. Those that called December 8th an anomaly in the European game—the hub of many campaigns to eradicate racism from the game—faced a tough reality a week later when a Tottenham fan hurled a banana skin at Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after he notched two goals in his side’s 4-2 victory in the North London Derby.

December was a month to remember, largely for the wrong reasons. But it was also, perhaps, a necessary reminder of the obstinate nature of racism and the complacency that has arisen from the perceived success we have had in eliminating it from the European game.

Kick It Out, a watchdog campaign that provides a platform for fans to report incidents of abuse via its website and mobile app, has played an important role in helping drive racism out of soccer in the UK. According to the organization’s latest figures, however, reports of racist, discriminatory, and anti-semitic abuse have risen for the sixth year in a row at all levels of the game. Reports of racism grew by 22 percent in 2018 alone, reflecting only a portion of the actual number of incidents—many of which are believed to go unreported.

Soccer is considered a microcosm of society. From one perspective, “the beautiful game” reflects the compassion, community, and mutual respect that fans and players have for one another even in the midst of competition. From another, you see disparate images—like those of December—which are clear reflections of a growing platform for unfettered hate in the game and society at large. However, just as many athletes in the US have used their influence to challenge the institutions and leaders that perpetuate hate, many personalities in the soccer world are doing the same, including Raheem Sterling.

Just days after the verbal assault at Stamford Bridge, Sterling took to his Instagram to make a statement, in part blaming certain media outlets that have adamantly and unfairly criticized him and other black players. The post featured screenshots of two Daily Mail headlines, both about young, British Manchester City players who have bought two million pound homes for their mothers. The headlines—one about Phil Foden and the other about Tosin Adarabioyo—highlight the implicit biases that Sterling says “fuel the racism and aggressive behavior” that he experienced at Stamford Bridge.

The Daily Mail called Foden a “starlet,” a title well-deserved given his strong performances off the bench in thirteen league matches, all before the age of 19. The article also included praises from Foden’s manager, Pep Guardiola. The Mail chose to paint Adarabioyo, the 21 year old of Nigerian descent, in a different light, lambasting him for “splashing” 2.25 million pounds “despite having never started a Premier League match.” At the midway point of the 2018-19 season, both Foden and Adarabioyo still await their first Premier League starts.

This is not the first time that members of the press have been charged with propagating covert and overt racism toward black players and racial minorities more generally. Even before this most recent incident, Ian Wright—a former Premier League and England National team star of Jamaican descent—accused members of the British media of pursuing a racist agenda against Raheem Sterling.

Like Adarabioyo, in the early stages of his career, Sterling was scrutinized for purchases that he made for his mom, a single-mother who came to England to provide her kids with a better life following the murder of Sterling’s father in Jamaica. In a piece he wrote for The Players’ Tribune, he responded to his critics: “All I have to tell you is that 15 years ago, we were cleaning toilets in Stonebridge and getting breakfast out of the vending machine.”  

Despite overcoming extreme odds to get where he is today and demonstrating a tremendous amount of humility on and off the field, he has been vilified by the media and English football supporters alike. Ian Wright told BBC Radio, “Whatever he does, no matter how high he reaches, they want to drag [him] back down.” The damning media coverage surrounding Sterling’s World Cup performances mirrored the low opinions of Sterling among England supporters. While Sterling struggled to hit the target, he was praised by former and current teammates for his tireless work ethic and his constant impact over the 454 minutes that he played in Russia.

Several former players-turned soccer journalists have called for greater minority representation within the media. The Black Collective of Media in Sports (BCOMS) pointed out that of the sixty-three sports journalists sent by national news outlets to cover the 2018 World Cup in Russia, just one was black. A 2003 study on attitudes toward black soccer players in the UK found that black pundits were more likely to identify the “media sport racial stereotypes” that profoundly impact and inform the racial attitudes of fans.

While greater minority representation in the media is certainly part of the solution, it is no more the sole fix than the media is the sole problem.

“It’s a cancer,” Robbie Earle told Rebecca Lowe on Premier League Mornings. “And cancers, unless you are vigilant, will come back.” Earle, a pundit for NBC Sports and a former Wimbledon and Jamaican national team captain, was one of many players to champion campaigns against racism in the mid-nineties. Show Racism the Red Card (SRTRC), part of a broader UEFA campaign to eradicate racism in European football, piloted education programs to positively mold the minds of British youth. SRTRC is still involved in the game today, but many have called its efficacy into question.

Manchester United and England legend Rio Ferdinand agreed with Raheem Sterling’s criticism of the media, but also questioned whether the Premier League, the FA, UEFA, and FIFA were doing enough. “Yes, we have all these slogans and campaigns, but for me they’re too fly-by. There needs to be more substance behind these things.”

Ferdinand’s concern about the effort and ambition of football’s governing bodies in the fight against racism is valid. In all three cases in December, stadium officials and law enforcement moved quickly to investigate and apprehend the perpetrators. However, top officials in the game’s governing bodies neglected to publicly condemn the transgressions.

The rise in hate as reported by Kick It Out bears a striking resemblance to the rise in reported hate crimes in the UK. Addressing the latter issue falls largely on the shoulders of the British government. But, in recent years, government officials have been criticized for promoting immigration policy tainted with racism and xenophobia.

As Stan Collymore wrote in the Guardian, “In this post-Brexit vote environment, people again feel free to be openly racist, saying and writing the types of things that vilify certain sections of society for no other reason than the way they look…that is what Sterling picked up on in his post.”

The former Premier League player-turned pundit is not the first to connect the 2016 Brexit referendum to the emboldenment of racist and xenophobic behavior in the UK. The Brexit debate has given legitimacy to concerning discourse on racial equality, according to E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance with the United Nations. Her investigation of Brexit’s impact on racial equality in the UK provides an expository conclusion regarding the flux of outright racism in soccer. Hate is a very difficult weapon to aim.

“A hostile environment ostensibly created for and formally restricted to irregular immigrants is in effect a hostile environment for all racial and ethnic communities…both unconscious bias and conscious racial prejudice remain alive and well.”

If soccer is a microcosm of society, alleviating racism in the game will require an institutional change at a time when British institutions are under duress. While the onus is on British officials to address broader issues of intolerance, members of the soccer community should not underestimate their ability to effect change. Players, clubs, leagues and governing bodies must keep this issue at the forefront in order for 2019 to be a year of progress.

Raheem Sterling has continued to use his platform in the new year, sending a letter of encouragement to a young fan who was also on the end of racial abuse. “Remember speaking up doesn’t always make life easy,” he told the young fan. “But easy never changed anything.”

Words we should all keep in mind in 2019 and beyond.