For several years now my job has involved writing about Manchester City and because of this, I picked up on the media’s weird and disturbing obsession with Raheem Sterling quite early on.
I was hardly alone in doing so. City fans couldn’t help but notice that their forward was increasingly being demonised in certain newspapers for reasons that at the time were utterly perplexing.
So we were stunned when Sterling was criticised for purchasing batteries in Poundland and confounded when he was lambasted for flying on EasyJet only to then be equally panned for using a private plane. The lad couldn’t win.
We railed against The Sun’s hyperbolic reproval of the player’s decision to buy his mum a house, concerned that the sensationalistic nature of the article was clearly designed to whip up hatred from their readership. For reference, here is the headline:
“England failure steps off plane and insults fans by showing off blinging house”
The coverline at the top read, “Sterling sinks to new low” and beneath a photograph of a posh sink that the player had put on Instagram – a sink bought by a Premier League footballer for a mother who had raised him single-handedly since he was a toddler – was the stinging pay-off line: “But don’t worry, £ Sterling is on the up!”
Coming so soon after England’s sorry exit at the 2016 Euros it is hard to imagine a more overt and reprehensible attempt to scapegoat; to turn an individual into a hate-figure on the flimsiest of contexts, and when that concerns The Sun that’s quite some claim. Then there was the dog-whistled racism. Blinging?
It felt like the beginning of an orchestrated attack and this duly continued right across the tabloids, becoming ever more ridiculous and ever more spiteful. A 500-word article was given over to Sterling driving an unwashed car.
Then there was the coverage of his engagement that was headlined thus: “Wed Devil: Love rat Sterling proposes to long-suffering girlfriend”. For a stark comparison, we only need recall David Beckham’s betrothal to Victoria Adams and how that was portrayed as a regal fairy-tale.
In due course rival fans vociferously protested about this abhorrent treatment – a vendetta no less that was cruel, disturbing, and unquestionably underpinned by racial origin – but it took the newspaper’s sporting colleagues to finally speak out before one of the most repugnant and widespread smear campaigns in recent history abated. Shame on those football journos incidentally for taking so damn long.
There was however just time for one last manufactured ‘controversy’.
A photograph of Sterling training with his socks rolled down revealed a tattoo of a gun on his leg and this was enough to get Piers Morgan pretending to be very Piers Morgan on Twitter and for sections of the media to call for the forward to be dropped from the next international squad.
The player in response to all this nonsense put out a social media post whereupon he explained that his father was murdered by a firearm and the tattoo was there to remind him of their evil. “I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun in my lifetime,” he wrote.
Sky Sports later reported on this statement, erroneously adding an ‘again’ after ‘gun’. I’m sure it was an honest mistake.
The moment the wrong type of footballer bought an expensive house. pic.twitter.com/fe35iyOaLq
— The Exploding Heads (@Exploding_Heads) November 16, 2020
At the start, I intimated that I had been writing about Sterling’s treatment at the hands of the press for quite some time and I began there to illustrate just how dispiriting is it to have to dredge once more through that prolonged and sorry episode.
Because I really and truly thought that I would never have to cover this subject ever again. I naively assumed that – such was the welter of condemnation for the media’s actions – lessons had been learned.
But alas that is anything but the case, alas it’s happening again and this time it’s Marcus Rashford on the receiving end: another young, successful black footballer. And Mason Greenwood too: yet another young, successful black footballer.
Let’s insinuate no more. Let’s say it for how it really is. The reason why Sterling, Rashford and Greenwood have been targeted in such a manner is because they are young, successful black footballers.
And through the eyes of a vile, small-minded and archaic right-wing press – who present such stories for the gratification of a vile, small-minded and archaic racist tract of this country – they are young, successful black footballers who have ‘stepped out of line’.
What an abhorrent turn of phrase but can it be argued that this lies not at the heart of their motivation?
Sterling ‘stepped out of line’ when he demanded a move from one Premier League club to another leading to accusations that he was ‘greedy’. It’s a career path countless other players have followed but they were not so high-profile and critically not British and black.
That same summer when Sterling switched from Liverpool to Manchester City, 27 other players moved between top-flight outfits. Twenty seven.
Rashford ‘stepped out of line’ when he embarrassed the government due to his campaigning for children not to go hungry. For he was given the full Daily Mail treatment this week, complete with coded digs that observers from the Sterling witch-hunt will be all-too-familiar with; digs designed to bristle the skin of racists and enflame confirmation-bias of their stupid and ill-informed world-view.
Once again too front and centre was an odd and unsettling fixation with how a black multi-millionaire spends his money.
Fucking amazing pic.twitter.com/cwRUug0OUD
— James Felton (@JimMFelton) November 15, 2020
Greenwood ‘stepped out of line’ when he was involved in an England scandal a while back. Since then there have been mutterings and snide rumours, ranging from published gossip that his club are concerned about his application in training to entirely false claims that he was involved in a sexual attack.
Phil Foden was also implicated in that same England scandal but he’s white. He’s a kid and he will learn.
Writing this article I have been reminded throughout – somewhat bizarrely – of how the Rolling Stones were perceived in the sixties. For back in the day it was rock and roll stars who were deemed to be ‘other’, a threat to the very fabric of England’s net curtains. It was they who were marginalised; portrayed as problematic in the press. It was they who Middle-England tutted about while eating their cornflakes.
In 1967 the police raided a rather tepid-sounding ‘party’ at the residence of Keith Richards where they found the band and their girlfriends sitting around smoking weed and such was the hysterical reaction of the newspapers that it encouraged the police to pursue a court case.
Indeed, so over the top was the press’ response that it prompted the Times – the Times! – to publish a famous editorial entitled ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel’?
Over half a century on those butterfly wings are black and where once it was an individual’s bohemian lifestyle that perturbed staid old Albion now it is the colour of a wealthy sportsman’s skin.
We haven’t evolved at all, have we. In fact, we are only going backwards.