We need to talk about Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling didn’t have a great Euro 2016.
Raheem Sterling left Liverpool for Manchester City and angered one of England’s largest fan bases.
Raheem Sterling hits the ball with his heel when he shoots, making him an erratic attacking player.
These three things are sometimes exasperating in isolation. Depending on your footballing loyalties, they might be borderline infuriating. But none of these things should open up Raheem Sterling to the sort of battering we see in the assembled press and football zeitgeist.
For the problem is, none of these things make up Raheem Sterling’s greatest crime.
Raheem Sterling's greatest crime was not that he was another English player handsomely rewarded for some erratic performances. It was not that he looked at the condition of the Liverpool squad in the summer of 2015, post-Suarez and post-Gerrard and realised Champions League football might be beyond them for a while.
It was not even the poorly advised BBC interview where he explained his reasoning, promising that he wasn't a money grabber for turning down his Liverpool contract. It was not his want to "be the best I can be" that earned him the wrath of the assembled football media and fans.
It was the fact he did all of this while being a young black man.
Sterling was just one part of a wholly disappointing England team at Euro 2016, but he found himself again the centre of attention for having the temerity to be anything more than aghast at his performances.
For Sterling to buy his mother a house, to provide for his family that have stuck by him, he was called a "footballing idiot". Earning £180,000 a week, no less.
(The front page of The Sun on Thursday 30 June)
Why is it that Sterling comes under scrutiny over and over?
There was "TiredGate" when he asked Roy Hodgson to not play him during a qualifying match against Estonia. We know a lack of rest is limiting our English players, every tournament failure is followed by calls for a winter break so English players may refresh and recharge and limit future injury. Why is it Sterling was criticised for trying to take responsibility for his own health? For being honest and telling his manager that if possible, could he sit this one out to fight another day?
We talk of England players being unable to cope with the pressure of tournaments, but when Sterling talked of seeking psychiatric help to deal with this ahead of Euro 2016 he was lambasted as "soft".
We have seen on multiple occasions Raheem Sterling talk articulately about his football and his career. He knows he is a player that is prone to blowing hot and cold. He knows his current playing style is reliant on pace. Raheem Sterling knows it's doubtful he’ll be playing into his mid-thirties and is making adjustments to his life so his career spends as many years at footballing’s top table as possible.
So why is it we still call him an idiot? Why is it when a semi-professional footballer is done for drug dealing, Sterling’s face is used to sell the story on social media? Despite him being nothing to do with the story...
(The Sun's Twitter feed, selling a story involving semi professional footballer Omar Lindsay. The story has since been amended to remove any mention of Raheem Sterling.)
There is more to the current criticism of Raheem Sterling. It comes from a very, very ugly place which has nothing to do with football.
We see this again and again and again we see codified language used to describe black sportspeople.
Think of how we talk about black athletes. Strikers are 'beasts'. Defenders are 'animals'. All too often black players are viewed in an animalistic prism. We are quick, we are strong, we are hard. We are rarely called intelligent or graceful. We are the hammer, never the scalpel.
N'Golo Kante may be the eternal battery of Leicester City’s title-winning efforts last season but think how many pieces have you read that praised the intelligence of his reading of the game? Instead the focus is on his uncanny ability to run and run and run, old fashioned brown immigrant labourer working and working, who's happy to do it for (relative) scant reward while Drinkwater picks the passes.
Yaya Toure in his pomp ran midfields with a similar elegance to Zinedine Zidane, yet no writer will compare the two. Instead Yaya is compared to a boulder, an inhuman agent of chaos barrelling towards the goal. Black players are only compared to other black players – you're either the next Makelele, or the next Vieira. To do otherwise would be to pay them too much of a compliment. To admit they are good at all parts of the game.
We are never afforded the grace to pair with another man of the same skin in defence - two black centre backs leave you prone to brain farts, they say. You need someone else to marshal them. Rio Ferdinand needed Stuart Pearce to teach him how to defend. Sol Campbell needed Keown and Adams. There was always a white centreback needed to take us to the next level.
Black players are said to are too selfish to play up front together. We’re stroppy and arrogant and disrespectful to authority.
We wear flashy boots. We make friends with rappers (read: the only people with the same lived black experience as us). We brag. We boast. We disappear over the winter months because "we're not built for it". As if Britain is the only nation to experience a bit of cold and wet.
And how we spend. The money black sports people earn is always quoted. Look at the black person. Look at how they spend money. Your money. The hard working fans' money. Money that is not properly earned because we got it using our physical, animal talents. No thought is given to how the average 21-year-old would spend £100,000 a week, instead the reader is supposed to get angry at Memphis Depay buying a Rolls Royce. Look at the black athlete frittering his money. They have no idea what they are doing. They should know their place and focus on their football. No thought is given. Get back to the field and do your assigned work. The final link I’ll leave for you.
There are always pointed mentions of the “impoverished childhoods” of black players.
Growing up shorn of love, or 'proper family', as if somehow coming from a black working class background makes us somehow deficient in showing love to one another. Always a link to prison is made, if the player didn't come close to falling to a life of crime, they will find their brother, or cousin, or schoolfriend.
Look for the mention for absent parental figures until a doting manager, a white saviour comes to save them. Talk to them. Show them love. And family. That's all that Balotelli needs. A 'proper' father figure.
To get them to simmer down that animalistic negro rage that apparently sees so many black players spend money freely and party too much. There is constant talk of black players having to "rein it in". Ravel Morrison couldn't rein it in (despite all evidence pointing the blame elsewhere during his time West Ham), Wilfred Zaha was 'lazy' while at Manchester United.
Rein it in. Rein. A whip. A chain. A device to hold us in control, less we devolve into whatever beast the football press believes we have within.
We have to do better. To make football more inclusive for all of its members, we have to study the language we use to describe our black players. We have to get past the knee-jerk reactions of "it has nothing to do with his race", stop our attempts to play devil's advocate and "but a white player goes through this too." We have to LISTEN to the words that are being used and why they are being used.
Raheem Sterling may be 21 years of age, but there is a toxic edge to when someone criticises him calling him “Boy”. Listen for it. Just because John Barnes decided to backheel the banana thrown at him, does not excuse the fact a person threw a banana at him. A person viewed John Barnes as less than human and decided to make mockery of him in a public place. In his place of work. Think on it. Think of how little has changed since. I know this because I have had a banana thrown at me during games. I have been called a “coon winger” while coming off the bench.
Think of how many black footballers there are in the football league, and how few of them go into coaching. What feeds into that gap? Wrack your brain for the last time you saw a black football writer in a mainstream media slot talking about football. Then do it again and think of when he wasn’t a former player. It is hard, and uncomfortable, but there is a gap that has to be reconciled.
We need to talk about Raheem Sterling, who might one day be one of the best talents in Europe. Just not in this way.