Let’s talk about Raheem Sterling. The 24-year old is coming off his best ever season and is showing no signs of slowing down. If he’s not there yet, he’s agonizingly close to being labelled world class, and he will be a superstar in football for years to come. He is a man doing his job at the highest level, taking care of his family, and enjoying life to the fullest. At 24, he’s already achieved the dream; against all odds, he’s achieved the dream.
Raheem Sterling was born in the Maverley district of Kingston, Jamaica, one of the most violent slums in the nation. It has become a ghost town due to the widespread poverty, crime, and gang violence that engulf it. Too poor to afford a football, Sterling would kick around a juice carton from dusk to dark, stopping only when he heard gunfire. He lived in a crammed three-bedroom bungalow with eight relatives. When he was two, his father was ambushed and killed. When he was six, his mother took him and his sister away from Jamaica, to the St. Raphael’s estate in London, nearby Wembley Stadium.
In London, he’d wake up at 5 a.m. before school to help his mother do maintenance work at the hotel in Stonebridge–anything from replacing bed sheets to cleaning toilets. He was kicked out of primary school for bad behavior, and sent to a special school with six students and three teachers. He sorted out his behavioral issues, and a year later, he was back to his old school. Besides that, nothing had changed–he only had one dream: become a professional footballer. His teacher once told him, “If you carry on the way you’re going, by the time you’re 17, you’ll either be in prison or playing for England.”
This past summer, at the age of 23, Raheem Sterling started his third straight international tournament for England. Thanks to his perseverance, hard work, and unshakeable mental strength, Sterling has ascended to the uppermost echelon of football.
And despite all that, there is an aura of negativity that surrounds Sterling, and it’s not his fault. Negative press coverage follows Sterling everywhere he goes and no matter what, he has become a scapegoat for past failures at the international level, failures that weren’t necessarily his fault, but failures that needed someone for fans and journalists to conveniently point their fingers at.
We should be talking about Raheem Sterling every week because he’s a damn good footballer. Instead, we find ourselves outraged at the way his life is reported in the media, and the way that misleading coverage fans the fire of racists. On Saturday, Raheem Sterling celebrated his 24th birthday as his Manchester City side took on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. During the game, a Chelsea fan was caught screaming what looks like racial abuse at Sterling as he collected the ball near the touchline. The abuse was caught on video and went viral in minutes, prompting both Chelsea and the Metropolitan Police to investigate the incident.
Sterling responded on Sunday via Instagram, saying, “I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to [be] heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game, as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better.” Later in his post, Sterling highlighted the British media’s reporting and how they frame stories regarding white players and black players. He ended his Instagram post with: “So for all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age, all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance.”
It’s disgusting and heartbreaking what Sterling has been put through. Over the years, the media have criticized everything from him buying his mother a house, to shopping at Poundland, to dedicating a tattoo of a rifle to his late father, who was killed by gun violence. The nit-picking of Sterling’s life away from the pitch is racially-charged, because media outlets choose to frame stories that way. This isn’t accidental; it’s a decision to frame reporting and highlight black players more often in an attempt to garner clicks and propagate animosity.
The reigning Premier League champion has received more negative press for legal activities–like smoking shisha or taking a shirtless selfie–than many players of a different skin color have for illegal activities–like domestic abuse or drunk driving. He’s had to defend himself from a relentless offensive of media agendas, and he’s still managed to become one of the most lethal forwards in the continent. Now, he’s not only acting as a role model for young, aspiring black footballers, but he’s doing everything he can to protect them and ensure that they don’t suffer the same unfair treatment that he did.
In his Instagram post, Sterling brought up the media coverage of two Manchester City youth players–Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden–one black player and one white player. Both players, after working their way up to Premier League contracts, earned the ability to reward their mothers who had strived to help them achieve their dreams. They both bought their mothers expensive, luxurious mansions, and yet, while media headlines heaped praise on Foden’s good deed, they painted Adarbioyo’s equally good deed as a tale of a black youngster spending recklessly on something that they neither needed nor deserved. It’s just two headlines, but it’s indicative of a cancer that continues to infect the lifeblood of the English media.
Sterling is right. Newspapers don’t give black players fair and equal chances as opposed to their white teammates, because racism has never gone away in the UK. It exists on the terraces around Britain, it exists online through Twitter trolls, and it exists in mainstream sports media. It shouldn’t have took an enraged supporter shouting abuse into Sterling’s face on Saturday for this narrative to begin. In the midst of this biased coverage, Sterling has quietly gone about his business, consistently improving as a footballer while never engaging in criminal activities. He is more than just an upstanding citizen, he is a role model, a beacon of hope that kids around follow as they chase their dreams.
When popular media outlets identify a player to monitor and report every detail of their life, such as they have with Sterling, it breeds hostility. He is booed in grounds across the country, for god knows what reasons. Stories are written with clear bias and they have helped enable a dangerous environment of racism across Britain’s football community.
This isn’t the first time Raheem Sterling has been racially abused; it happened just last year. A Manchester United supporter ran onto City’s training ground, shouting racial abuse at Sterling. He called him a “black Scouse c—” and yelled “I hope your mother and child wake up dead in the morning you n—–.” Then, he kicked him in the legs four times, leaving him with a sore hamstring.
These racially motivated acts of violence are the products of a racist media narrative. The 24-year old has been through hell and back in the media, and he has every right to call out the unfair way they report his life and the lives of other black footballers. The utilization of coded language and selective, deceptive reporting isn’t rare or hard to find. It’s right in front of our eyes, yet so many refuse to condemn it and call it what it truly is: Racism.
So listen to Raheem Sterling. It’s not enough if we simply pay lip service as a reward for his brave comments; racism will continue to rear its ugly head on the football pitch and the online servers, and threaten the careers of young black footballers. It’s almost 2019, and yet, not much has changed since 1959. It’s time to listen to Raheem Sterling–and take action.
By: Harry Harris