Raheem Sterling v England
There are few fields in British public life in which black people are more visible than in sport. From football, to athletics, to boxing and netball, professional sports are one key area in which Black Britons have achieved significant success, wealth and fame. It is because of this hyper-visibility that black sports people and the way they and their success (and sometimes lack of it) can present an incredibly interesting prism through which to analyse the way the country feels about its black citizens more generally.
Perhaps the most obvious example to start with given the recent World Cup, is Raheem Sterling. Born in Jamaica, Sterling moved to North West London with his mother at age 9, with a series of superlative performances in the youth teams of QPR and Liverpool setting him out as a future star of world football before he had even made his professional debut. Now a fully established player for the premiership champions Man City and a regular for the England national team, Sterling was without a doubt one of the most scrutinised players in the England camp both prior to and during England’s World Cup campaign.
Sterling’s criticism both at the hands of the tabloid press and certain sections of the public has been relentless for a number of years now, having been painted as a flash and arrogant poster boy for everything that is apparently wrong with English football.
The criticism of Sterling in particular seems odd given that he is one of several black or mixed raced players in the England team, the majority of whom seem to avoid the intense scrutiny that Sterling has suffered from over the years. The real reason for this seems to be the way in which the treatment of black footballers has changed over the past few decades. Whilst in the 1970s and 80s black players would be the subject of abuse and ridicule from the terraces for merely existing, black players now are tolerated - and on many occasions even adored - so long as they are not perceived as acting ‘above their stations’.
It is no coincidence that much of the genesis of the attacks on Sterling’s character came about when the player demanded a move away from Liverpool to Man City. The aversion of many football fans and journalists to Raheem Sterling is therefore not merely an aversion to him as a person, but of the idea of a black individual showcasing ambition, of black outspokenness and the idea of black people challenging the status quo.
While things have certainly progressed with regards to race in football, with the multicultural England team and their successes acting as a much-needed representation of a more unified nation in the age of Brexit, the case of Raheem Sterling shows that there is still work to be done.