Raheem Sterling: The Dog-Whistle Becomes Audible

by | Dec 11, 2018

In some respects, the entirety of the racist abuse hurled at Raheem Sterling and the reaction was simultaneously surprising and completely unsurprising. Given the current socio-political climate in this country, it probably shouldn’t surprise anybody that black players should still have to deal with this sort of bullshit, all the more so when we consider the exact identity of the player concerned. For all of that, though, there remains a capacity for this sort of grotesque behaviour to turn the stomach when we see it in its full, visceral inglory.

There isn’t a single person reading this, however, who needs yet another white, middle-aged man telling the world that Racism Is Bad. But the reaction to all of this has been telling in that respect and there has even been a hint that the media – or, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, a proportion of the media – might be starting to change its tack when discussing the subject. BBC Breakfast invited John Barnes onto their sofa yesterday morning to speak about it, and Barnes vindicated that invitation by eloquently explaining that racism in professional football remains a reflection of racism within society in a broader sense, while the Guardian invited Stan Collymore to write about the matter. Collymore has spoken out on the subject before and is intelligent enough to understand the motivations behind a lot of the criticism that he receives when he does. He didn’t hold back.

Whether intentional or not, at least the inference that we should all be listening to black voices when they speak up is positive. The football media in this country remains overwhelmingly white and male, and the subliminal message that those who do speak up on matters of equality or, to use those dread words, “social justice”, are merely being “uppity” (the implication there being that their opinions and their lived experiences, can be easily dismissed) has been – and in some quarters remains – a poison that has coursed all the way through our culture. It’s dog-whistle nature has flown beneath too many radars for too long. Perhaps now it will finally start to be considered for what it actually is.

The nature of the way in which Raheem Sterling broke his silence on the matter is also important, in terms of framing how the very nature of the relationship between professional footballers and the mass media is starting to shift. Sterling released his statement on the events of Saturday evening on Instagram, where he has 4.2m followers. Such is the nature of the sort of numbers that get thrown around in web engagement that it’s easy to blink and miss this one, but it’s greater than the combined print circulation of the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Daily Star and the Daily Express. His Instagram post has, at the exact time of writing, received 596,000 likes on Instagram, more than the print circulations of any of the above newspapers bar the Sun and the Daily Mail.

And it’s not just in terms of numbers in the slowly dying medium of print journalism, either. Raheem Sterling has almost three times as many Instagram followers as The Sun has on Twitter, six times as many as the Daily Express, and almost twice as many as the Daily Mail. To put it another way, his personal reach is now greater than any tabloid newspaper, which further underlines the possibility that we in the UK greatly over-estimate the influence and reach of the tabloid press on the basis of what it used to be rather than what it is now based on the state of the media landscape in 2018. It’s a demographic shift that has gone somewhat unnoticed in recent times (in no small part because the tabloids themselves have become increasingly shrill, amplifying their messages through social media in no small part through systematically pushing the buttons of those who vehemently oppose them), but there’s much more than anecdotal evidence that it has taken place.

The growth of the Players Tribune website since its formation in 2014 has been a solid example of a way in which professionals within many sports are increasingly choosing to circumvent the traditional media avenues of getting their stories told. Why entrust a story in which you’re honest enough to lay yourself bare to a newspaper if there’s a chance that your words will subsequently be twisted in order to facilitate clicks for money or some other unwritten agenda? Recent articles there have received considerable praise for their quality and honesty from a reading public that is starting to get a little tired of the perpetual outrage machines that some sections of the media in this country have become, whilst it can hardly be argued that the players need the few thousand pounds that “telling all” to a tabloid newspaper might bring in any more. Small wonder that they’re seeking greater control over their stories.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Raheem Sterling has, whether intentionally or not, framed his Instagram message with considerable poise. This is his voice, with the rough edges intact, but he doesn’t even mention his own treatment at the hands of the media once. Instead, he chose to focus on recent reporting of the purchase of houses by his Manchester City team-mates Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden and their very different treatment in a far right newspaper. Entirely predictably, the report framed Adarabioyo as having spent £2.25m on a property “despite having never started a Premier League match”, whilst Foden having bought a property was framed as someone who “buys a £2m home for his mum” and having this described as having “set up a future.” Raheem Sterling credited his audience with the intelligence to be able to join the dots for itself.

Exposing this rank hypocrisy – why should it matter a single jot if a player has started in the Premier League if he can afford it? – without even mentioning his own treatment at the hands of the press has proved to be a move of deftness and skill that matches anything that he’s done on the pitch this season. And that’s before we even consider the fact that Adarabioyo is currently on loan at West Bromwich Albion so, whilst he might not have started any Premier League matches this season, he has played seventeen times in the Championship and League Cup this season.

Tackling the tabloid press over this horrible state of affairs doesn’t, however, let supporters off the hook. The weekend before last it was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter throwing a banana skin at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the North London Derby. Last weekend it was Chelsea supporters hurling racist abuse at Raheem Sterling. And whilst it’s easy to score points over the tabloid press over inciting this sort of incident (The Sun allowed the banana skin thrower to tell their audience that he was definitely not a racist – they never are, are they?), this doesn’t ultimately alter the fact that it is supporters who were ultimately behaving in this way and that these incidents appear to be on the rise. Perhaps they’ve been encouraged by the rhetoric surrounding Brexit or the deliberately constructed language of the tabloid press.

This doesn’t doesn’t mitigate their behaviour though, obviously. The question of how we should confront bigotry in the stands when we see it is a personal matter, but it would be a start to see clubs enthusiastically encouraging other supporters to draw it to the attention of stewards or the police when we do witness it. There needs to be a safe environment for those who are appalled by what we hear and who want action to be taken when we do encounter it. Having said that, though, we as supporters can drive a narrative that there is no such thing as a player who is “fair game”, when it comes to this sort of abuse, should we choose to.

Ultimately, though, this is something in which we all have a stake, and the football media can do its part by amplifying BAME voices, hiring from groups that are ordinarily marginalised and, critically, not simply allowing incidents such as this to drift on by or quietly fade from view. Despite the fact that social media facilitates greater exposure to the racism that so many people, whether famous or not, encounter on a daily basis, it is down to all of us to ensure that such voices are not silenced, belittled, casually dismissed, or otherwise shunted out of the spotlight. It is up to all of us to see and understand these patterns of behaviour on the part of both the media and supporters for what they are, rather than following the scent of the disingenuous camouflage thrown over them and getting sidetracked by that instead. And if we regardless of whether can get to that point or not, perhaps it’s about time we all shut up and listened, rather than trying to dictate to BAME people what constitutes racism and what doesn’t.