The case study of Raheem Sterling

How the issue with young black footballers is highlighting the issue with institutional racism and racial bias in society. Raheem Sterling has become a case study for the problems which UK society is suffering with.

This past weekend Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick for Man City to keep the reigning champions top of the Premier League. That put Sterling on 15 goals for the season, along with 9 assists, making him and Aguero the top producers in the league contributing 24 goals each. It was another impressive show from Sterling who has gone from strength to strength this past 18 months under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola. There is an argument to say that he is the best wide/inside forward in football at this time. A mix of skill, creativity and elements of unorthodoxy which has seen him split opinion for a few seasons, yet which now seems almost unanimous (in a footballing sense) that Sterling is at the top of his and the game.

A tale of seizing opportunities

As Sterling has matured and settled in at City we have seen an impressive display of goals and assists from the young forward which has brought several trophies and the league. Aided by the quality of the players and a playing style which dominates possession and provides a constant stream of chances for the attack, Sterling’s all round game has excelled. Not only has it brought out more productivity and quality in Sterling but more tactical understanding and leadership swell.

In the past several years we have witnessed a young promising talent truly excel and fulfil his potential. Where many other young players have fallen away or struggled to maintain their levels of performance from their teens, Sterling, who at 24 years of age is still relatively young, is proving the doubters wrong and showing that he can perform with the best.

It’s testament to the individual and his family; a man whose personality and character. Add that in with the environment which Man City have created for young flourishing talent; the level of coaching, facilities and joined up cultural approach which City have built and it’s a perfect cocktail for a player like Sterling, whose career has been one of good choices and timing. But it’s not been easy. Before we get to the present day and the issues Sterling faces now, we have to look at what happened to him as a kid. To see what he went through, the sacrifices, the doubters and the support.

Many players don’t get the fortune of timing and opportunity in their youth journey. Unlike others Sterling has grasped it. Many don’t. It’s why Sterling’s story, and if you haven’t read it on The Players Tribune please find the time. It’s a story of a young kid who achieved and succeeded, who didn’t have much except for a hard working and supportive mom and sister. And consider, as we discuss the kind of abuse and targeting which Sterling has received by the media and public, just look at the true Sterling and his story.

The article provides some truly fantastic insights into the man and his time as a young boy growing up in London. It’s an inspiring story. The kid who dreamt of being Ronaldinho. Who would go out at break time at school and seek to replicate what his idol was doing. Football can be great for the dreamers, you don’t need fancy equipment, just a ball and a patch of grass or concrete. Sterling honed his skills in the playground trying to replicate his idol. Unfortunately dreams are often ruined by reality. And you only have to see the rise of gang culture and knife crime in London right now and you see dreams being ruined. A propensity of young people becoming pulled and pushed into this culture, limiting, ruining and killing lives.

Often dreams need something else, a mentor. Someone who can keep a young person focused, grounded and challenged. For many this is their father, but as more young men grow up without a father figure, a local community mentor figure, a coach or a teacher could be the necessary person to provide the help and guidance a young boy needs. Sterling had his mom, a strong woman who worked hard for the family. Yet as Sterling says,

“I really think hard about it, the moment my life changed was when I met a guy named Clive Ellington. He used to mentor the kids in our neighborhood who didn’t have their fathers around. On the weekend, he’d take us on little trips around London and show us a different side of life. Sometimes we’d just go play snooker. Basically, anything that wasn’t our day-to-day. He genuinely cared about us. So one day he sat me down and he said, “Raheem, what do you love to do?”

And that was it. That moment changed my life. From that day, it was football, football, football. Obsessed. Totally obsessed.

What I love about that quote, the glaring stand out line is, “He genuinely cared about us”. You cannot imagine how important this is for a young person, or anyone at any age.

The next stage for Sterling was his biggest decision, one many talented players reach. The time to choose which club to join. In the Academy system this is an important choice, one which has significant implications for later. Whether that’s opportunities to break into the 1st team or the difficulty of leaving that club.

“When I was 10 or 11, I was getting scouted by some big clubs in London. Fulham wanted me. Arsenal wanted me. And when Arsenal want you, of course you’re thinking you gotta go there. Biggest club in London, you know? So I’m running around telling my mates, “I’m off to the Arsenal!”

But his mom convinced him to go QPR instead. His mom believed that QPR was the best choice, believing he would get a better chance to shine at QPR – which he did.

She said, “If you go there (Arsenal), there’s going to be 50 players who are just as good as you. You’ll just be a number. You need to go somewhere where you can work your way up.” She convinced me to go to QPR, and it was probably the best decision I ever made.

You’ll just be a number. And how many in the Academy system are seeing in this way?

The difficulties and hardship

That decision ultimately meant it would be harder for the family.

In regards to his upbringing, this is what it was like; “My mum was working as a cleaner at some hotels to make extra money so she could pay for her degree. I’ll never forget waking up at five in the morning before school and helping her clean the toilets at the hotel in Stonebridge.”

Imagine this? Not many can appreciate or would have experienced this kind of childhood. While he was a promising young player he was also seeing and experiencing the graft his mom was going through to provide for him and his sister. Obviously family was important for him, as he says “My family, we were really tight. We had to be. All we had was us, you know?”

And yet we see ridicule and hatred when he buys his mom a house? After all she did for him. But the Daily Mail or Sun wouldn’t get it, or appreciate it. They see a young black lad who has risen to the top of English football and decide that they will seek to destroy him. This is from Mail online in June 2016, the headline read; “£180,000-a-week England flop Raheem shows off blinging house he bought for his mum – complete with jewel-encrusted bathroom – hours after flying home in disgrace from Euro 2016”.

Was it easy for Sterling at QPR? He had to take three buses and his sister had to go with him because his mom wouldn’t let him go alone. They would leave at 3.15pm and get back at 11pm. “Every. Single. Day. She’d sit upstairs in the little cafe and chill until I was done with training. Imagine being 17 years old and doing that for your little brother. And I never once heard her say, “Nah, I don’t wanna take him.” At the time, I didn’t understand how much she was sacrificing. Her and my mum got me here. My whole family played a massive part in my life. Without them, you wouldn’t even know me.”

Incredible. The commitment and dedication from all the family to help support his dream and provide him the opportunity. Many kids have got it easy. Or they have it so hard that they can’t get there. Raheem was lucky because he had such a supportive family. And what do they get? Insulted and ridiculed in the media?

Now if it wasn’t hard enough travelling after school to training each day, then imagine the feeling of never being stable. Of constantly moving houses.

“I can remember when I was a kid, there was like three or four times when I was on the bus home from training and my mum would text me a new address. And she would say, “This is where we’re living now. There was a two-year period where we were moving all the time, because we couldn’t afford the rent. At the time, I barely thought about it. It was just normal to me. But now I understand what it must have been like for her, going through that struggle.”

Just imagine it. It’s a similar story to another great sportsman LeBron James and his upbringing; just him and his mom, moving from new home to new home every few weeks and months. That kind of experience will put things into perspective and build some resolve and resilience.

Overcoming the doubters and proving them wrong

So he’s got all this going on, putting in all this level of commitment and dedication through difficult times and he was still being questioned. As he says,

“Not everybody believed. I had a teacher when I was 14, and to be fair I was probably messing about, not really listening. So she said, “Raheem! What’s wrong with you? Do you think football is going to be your end goal? Do you know how many millions of kids want to be footballers?”

You know sometimes these ‘doubters’ are exactly what a young athlete needs. They need someone to question their commitment, to find out how serious they are. Their doubts may be genuine yet it’s a test to this young persons resolve and belief in themselves. Some may be put off by it, accept defeat as such, but those special ones, the ones who have that inherent drive to succeed, these doubts are challenges, they help re-focus and re-energise, they help fuel the flames to prove them wrong and succeed in the face of adversity. That’s what I love so much about this story, it’s a story of a strong family support, working hard to provide and do what they can, and a young boy with a dream who was willing to make it happen.

And I thought, O.K., fair enough, I’ve heard those odds before.

But then she said, “What makes you so special?”

And that line really stuck with me.”

What makes him so special? He’s a really interesting talent Sterling. So dynamic, he glides across the ground and yet he is unorthodox and little different in his style. It’s what makes him special. He stands out. And you have to love that. Conventional doesn’t always mean good or better. And vice versa, unconventional can be often be great.

The mission to support his family

“But the real turning point came when I was 15. Liverpool wanted me, but it was three hours away from home. And I’ll never forget sitting my mum down and telling her that I wanted to go. I love all my friends from my neighborhood. They’re still my best friends in the world. But at that time, there was a lot of crime and stabbings going on, and I felt like Liverpool was a chance for me to go away and just focus on football. In my head, I was like, O.K., this is it. My mum sacrificed her life to get me here. My sister sacrificed her life to get me here. I’m here. Let’s go.”

He made the right choice in joining Liverpool, a club who has a great reputation for helping and progressing young talent. He got out of London – which may have have been necessary for him. He found a place to nurture his talent.

“For two years, I went ghost. You can ask my friends. When we had a day off, I’d come back to London on the train for a day to see my mum, and then it was back to Liverpool. I was shut down from the world. Just building myself up as a footballer. The club had me living with this older couple. They were in their 70s, and they really treated me like their own grandson. Every morning, I’d come down, and they’d have a bacon butty waiting for me. It was unbelievable. Beautiful garden out back. All these flowers, trees. It was like a different world.”

And soon enough he was pushing for the 1st team. Earlier we spoke about opportunity and luck. Well he benefitted greatly from the timing of Brendan Rodgers coming in as manager. One of the best for working with young players. He helped to help transition and educate him from youth to senior. And with players like Gerrard, Suarez and Sturridge to learn from Sterling’s apprenticeship into professional football was as perfect as you could wish for. So close to a Premier League title too. Sterling had achieved his dream of becoming a footballer. And what a statement he made. He had repaid the support, time and love of his family to help him get there. 

“That was probably the most important time of my life. My whole mission was to get a proper contract so that my mother and sister didn’t have to stress anymore. The day that I bought my mum a house, that was probably the happiest I’ve ever been.”

I genuinely struggle to understand how any media organisation can have the audacity to run a negative story on Sterling based on what he’s achieved and how supportive and appreciative he has been to his family. Perhaps some regard his move to Man City as motivated by money and money alone? Not seeing that City were the ones willing to make him the biggest English transfer fee because they saw in him his talent. But there’s this constant sense with some in the media that it’s wrong for these lads to earn money. Is it envy? Hatred?

The media campaign

So let’s look at the situation which has distracted many from looking at Sterling as a footballer. Frankly put he has become the face of the issues of racism and institutional racism in Britain.

If you don’t think this is an issue, or that it happens at all, then I’m afraid you suffer from ignorance or naivety. You only need to look at the division which the Brexit vote has brought to the surface to see a worrying undercurrent of racist, bigoted and xenophobic sentiment across society.

We have a media which pushes an anti-Muslim and racist agenda and which has either convinced many people that ‘foreign = danger/bad’ or simply confirmed people’s views on race. These views are often a result of environment, culture and upbringing. As a population your thoughts are manipulated by what you read, see and learn. Media, family, community and schools play a huge part in the development of people’s views and biases. These become deep rooted and ideas about race and religion become formed. In a nation which is pre-dominantly white/Christian, the ‘threat’ of different ethnicities and religions becomes worrying and scary to some people.

It’s a sad state of affairs to see this rise of xenophobia and racism become more prominent in our culture, and Western culture as a whole. People have reached a tipping point where immigration and the perceived threat of cultural change and ‘difference’ has become a serious problem. As the world has become more globalised, as migration has become more prominent, people have become more scared of it. As our nation becomes more multi-cultural people have grown more resistant. Brexit is about this. A fear of change and the worry that globalisation is a problem. Some people want to go back to the times of ‘safe, white communities’. The ‘good old days’ as Trump says. It’s sad to think so many people think this way. And the media are guilty of it. Fear mongering and propaganda which instils and incites fear and hatred.

Unfortunately black footballers have faced racism in the game and from the stands for decades. The Kick It Out campaign continues to provide support and education for people affected by these actions. The stories you hear of what black players had to endure in the past is rather sickening. And they had to persevere and ‘deal with it’ because it was the world they lived in. So the treatment Sterling receives is nothing new unfortunately. However it is concerning. It appears we are moving backwards. The Brexit vote so seemingly allowed people’s views to be more public and honest – has given them licence to ‘speak their mind’, and you find out that perhaps society hasn’t changed all that much.

How people can act in this way and treat people like this is baffling to me. But it’s clear there are a lot of people with racist tendencies and thoughts, who in large crowds voice their often supressed or silent racist views to the masses. Look at football crowds and you see a predominantly white fanbase at most grounds. And certain pockets of fans perhaps personify the racist culture of Britain in it’s most gloriously tragic form.

Take the incident at Stamford Bridge (pictured above) which sparked the debate about the inherent, institutional racism in football. It brought up discussion about racism in the media, about the lack of diversity in the media and negative campaigns to tarnish individuals reputations built mainly on a platform of hate for their race, ethnicity and their ability to make a lot of money from being excellent at football. It generated significant news coverage and debate for several days, but like anything felt reactionary to a situation which happens almost every week at nearly every ground. A wave of abuse from a group of fans who aim racist comments at the players regarding their race, ethnicity or religion. This was caught on TV and was brought into the mainstream to discuss. And while many in the media admitted there was a lack of diversity in their staff, that perhaps there was a bias towards young black players who received more negative press and coverage, has it really changed? We are talking about changing the mindset of society, a society which appeared to show tolerance and understanding in a multi-cultural world. However the worry is that more and more people appear to be becoming less tolerant, more honest about their views on race and bitter towards a generation of young black talent which is thriving and excelling in the footballing world.

The prejudice of young black players

There is a situation where these players are being judged and stereotyped on the colour of their skin. The way black players are referred to in terms of their physicality first and foremost; strong, big, fast, athletic. Their attributes of skill and intelligence are often neglected or ignored. Black = athlete. This stereotype is then pushed by the media and becomes a part of the psyche of the public. A stereotype which seeks to limit these individuals to just their genetics and physiology and purposefully seeks to make them inferior and less intelligent. It has been a constant issue in the NFL with the quarterback position (yet pleasingly this is changing). And it’s not just in sport but in the wider job market. A stereotype generated from a persons ethnicity or name. This is where institutional racism can be seen. 

For these young players in the world of football today they are making a lot of money. And so the issue of envy and anger towards these players becomes an issue. Not only stereotyped in their physical form but are regarded as the ‘modern player’, another negative jibe to highlight their apparent lavish lifestyles and ‘silly’ haircuts etc. It is always the black lads who get this focus. I think this is where Sterling has suffered most; “How dare these young black kids lavish their wealth. Do they not know their place in society?”

These young black players are at the top of their game and the media seek to twist and change perceptions and thoughts. There are issues that people have with young black lads making millions. It is bitterness and hatred. And the media have jumped on this sentiment and have used Sterling to highlight this issue. It’s a sickening attempt to ruin the character of a young player. As seen below – the campaign has been relentless.

And I genuinely believe there are people who find the rise of black players in the game at the top level a problem. A sense that the game ‘they love’ is changing. Perhaps it is why there is a growing desire for lower league football where there is a larger majority of white British players. In many ways they are not from the same culture as the fans who come to watch them. For some there is now a dis-connect.

Football has become, as it perhaps always was, a metaphor for the wider cultural and political landscape. Brexit is this. And Sterling is the example of what the media seek to do. Raheem Sterling is a victim of this kind of campaign. He has become the face of the negative propaganda machine, the ‘problem’.The attempt to character assassinate Raheem Sterling for the past 6 years has been nothing short of vile and sickening. The constant negative targeting of his actions, of the money he has spent and the ability to twist any story in to a negative has been laughable (if it wasn’t so serious).

Sterling has become a target for fans at every ground because they’ve read and being brainwashed through certain media channels; The Sun – the ‘nations most popular paper’ (which makes me sad and appalled, and therefore not surprised by the way some pepple think.) The Mirror, Daily Star, Express and of course The Daily Mail which seeks to tarnish the reputation of all foreigners and Muslims and which pushes out it’s right wing propaganda on a daily basis, filling the minds of those who read and believe their rubbish that you must fear people different to you and put your trust in white rich men. Social media has a role too of course but it seems these media organisations are the worst for this kind of propaganda.

And how does it make these lads feel? Gary Neville spoke about how Sterling came to see him at Euro 2016 and almost broke down, wondering why he was targeted so badly. What had he done to deserve it? Strive hard as a kid, work hard as a family to support each other, become a great player through hard work and then earn a £50m move through his quality. And yet instead of this seen as a great lesson for young kids across the country, not just young black lads from London, they attack him, insult him, seek to destroy his reputation.

“A few years ago, I would let it get to me. I’d be saying to my mum, “Why are they picking on me?” But now, as long as my mum and my sister and my kids don’t have any stress, I’m good.”

When Sterling talks about his daughter he makes reference to the point of ‘trust’. When you consider the way he is treated is it any wonder he is reserved and withdrawn from the media and public life. The lack of trust he must have in journalists and the media. As he says, “She’s just like me when I was a kid. Just like me, I swear. If she doesn’t know you well, she’s not gonna say a word to you. Not one word. She’s got to trust you first. That’s something that’s just rooted in our family.” And in Sterling’s world, trust is pretty important.

At the top level we are seeing a generation of players coming through the system who are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. I have argued before that I think there is a possible dis-connect between a predominately white coaching community and a growing majority of young black lads from different communities and cultures. There needs to be more diversity in the coaching of football, at all levels. Just look at the lack of black managers and the treatment of Darren Moore this past weekend. Coaching teams lack diversity at both Academy and senior level.

Like a bully – they hate because he’s good

Look I don’t know the lad, however he seems a genuinely good person, with strong values and a character which is hard working and honest. Perhaps that’s why they hate him so much. That he has actually achieved something. That he has gone from nothing to something. That he has supported his family. They can’t stand to see someone like him succeed. In their indoctrinated views on race and social status people ‘like that’ aren’t there to get out of the gutter.

These people’s whole social world is out of sync and they must seek to tarnish and pull down these talented lads. Their anger fuels hatred and vitriol. And the media stir and add fuels to the fire. As always white men seek to flip the agenda or divert attention away and seek to put the blame on these men and women on being the problem.

I hope the next few years and decades see a positive change in the way young people of different race, ethnicity and religion are viewed. The past few years has seen a period of isolationism and racist fear emerge at the forefront of society and politics in the West. Along with that comes the propaganda of hate and fear. I just hope we move the other way.

Raheem Sterling is a positive example to young kids everywhere, whatever their race or religion. I just hope kids across playgrounds are trying to be like Sterling, in the same way he was seeking to be Ronaldinho. Sterling is a role model to young kids and we should be delighted about it.

He end his article with this, England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream. Let’s hope so.

By The Whitehouse Address (@The_W_Address)