The media, Brexit, and the attitudes of English society are to blame for the racism that soccer players endure in England, Business Insider has been told.
These ugly incidents show that racism is running rampant in English soccer, which has created a toxic atmosphere in a sport paradoxically revered as “the beautiful game.”
But there are clear reasons why prejudicial sentiments are poisoning the bleachers and, according to Paul Kearns, deputy chief executive for the anti-racism charity Show Racism The Red Card, it is because soccer is a mirror of society.
“We have been well aware of racism within society over the last few years and we’ve always said that football is a mirror,” Kearns told Business Insider. “If we have issues with racism in society then that will manifest in football.”
Kearns said there are a number of reasons for this but the UK government’s deficit reduction programme — commonly known as austerity — has certainly had an impact. This is because “when resources are scant, people start to look around for why that might be.”
Scapegoats are then made with immigrant communities and Muslims feeling the brunt of people’s fears and prejudices, something that the 2016 Brexit campaign was able to capitalize on, Kearns said.
Additionally, the English media’s negative portrayal of black players — which has been highlighted by the Professional Footballers’ Association, and Kearns himself — has emboldened match-going soccer fans.
“As a society we’re in a difficult and divided position,” Kearns told BI. “There’s been scapegoats, immigrant communities, and an agenda against Muslims that helps forge opinions in people and further divides society. The Brexit campaign and the Brexit outcome did not help with the focus on immigration.
“When we see racism in our society, sadly it will filter through into football. There are a multitude of reasons why that is. But it does manifest in groups of football en masse, shouting anti-semitic chants. And individuals who feel emboldened to shout abuse at players like Raheem Sterling.”
Sterling “had to laugh” at the abuse
Sterling has also been on the receiving end of a mean-spirited crusade as the British media has targeted him with negative headlines for a number of years, including bizarre criticisms for being “tired,” for travelling on an £80 ($100) flight, and for shopping in “Poundland.”
Sterling commented on the contrasting way the media portrays successful black soccer players compared to successful white soccer players, as well as the alleged abuse he received himself during a match, in an Instagram post on December 9.
He said he “had to laugh” at what was said at the game, but does not expect any better because of how the media behaves. The message it puts across regarding young black players is different to white players, he said, and this “helps fuel racism and aggressive behavior.”
Kearns told Business Insider that Sterling is “brave” for making this statement. “For a number of years he’s been a focal point for newspapers to write negative stories,” he said. “From a difficult position he’s been brave to highlight what he feels is an agenda.”
“It’s testament to Raheem’s character that during that period of focus on his personal life, in terms of football, he’s been in the form of his life,” Kearns said, noting the Manchester City player’s attacking efficiency in scoring or creating one Premier League goal for every 76 minutes he has competed this season.
He is, by far, Manchester City’s best player, and is helping lead the way in the club’s assault in England, and in Europe.
But he is not just an incredible soccer player. His manager at City, Pep Guardiola, has also said that he’s an “incredible human being.”
Kearns said: “It’s incredible really to think about the pressure he’s under… but when you listen to Pep Guardiola, who knows him on a personal basis and sees him in training… it seems the media portrayal is different to his personal character.”
How the media can do better
There are some journalists — Darren Lewis of The Mirror and Daniel Taylor from The Guardian included — who deserve praise for not only adding weight to Sterling’s argument, but for continuing the conversation in the mainstream British press.
Football reporter Darren Lewis recently asked three questions in a column for The Mirror. Lewis believes the “establishment” needs to change, starting with the media itself. Here are his questions:
- How many of the media outlets conducting interviews in the Sterling issue this week had people of color asking the questions?
- How many newspapers in this country have black people in charge of the news agenda?
- How many of our media outlets — radio and TV — have black people actually approving what goes to air?
Chief football writer Daniel Taylor echoed this sentiment in The Guardian, claiming more diversity is needed on sports desks across England.
Taylor said: “Almost half the England players at the World Cup were from BAME backgrounds.” But he noted that the total number of BAME journalists sent by English newspapers and agencies was pitifully low. “Two, by my reckoning,” he said, “out of a total of nearly 100.”
Greater representation in newsrooms would improve how the media handles equality of coverage in the future, Kearns added.
“People like Darren Lewis and Daniel Taylor have turned the spotlight around on the media and talked about levels of representation in the media,” he said. “I think that’s probably a good starting point. Ask searching questions.”
The government must also play a role
Show Racism The Red Card has been lobbying government “for a number of years” to have anti-racism education in the national curriculum that is taught in English schools.
“We undertook a survey of students training to be teachers and we found they do not, as part of their training, receive anti-racism education,” Kearns told BI. “So waves of brand new teachers are going into classrooms without the ability to recognize, or have the knowledge to respond to, racism in the classroom. In our opinion, that is unacceptable.”
This stretches to teachers, too.
“In Wales, we’ve worked with the education union to go from having no teachers who are training and receiving anti-racism education, to 100% of teachers receiving anti-racism sessions as part of their training. But that doesn’t happen in England, and that sadly isn’t given the level of importance it should by the government.”
Matches ‘help bury’ inconvenient stories
Progress has been slow, but gradual. Gone are the dark days of the 1980s where the former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates was sent hate mail containing razor blades when he brought the first black player to the club, Paul Canoville. But there continue to be an alarming number of vile incidents, from the former soccer manager and pundit Ron Atkinson describing the former Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly as “a f—— lazy, thick, n—–“ in 2004 to Islamaphobic chanting aimed at the Egyptian forward Mido in 2008, and Chelsea fans pushing a black passenger off of a Metro train in Paris before a European game in 2015, chanting: “We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it.”
Racism in English soccer has not gone away. But Kearns says at least now it is being reported on and criticized, when previously it was ignored entirely.
“We have progressed in terms of atmospheres that the players had to play in, in the 70s and 80s,” Kearns said. “Watching highlights of ‘Match of the Day,’ you could clearly hear monkey-chanting and abuse of black players, but it was never mentioned in the commentary or punditry.
“Nowadays a story about racism is reported on the front-pages and we have come a long way in the media. But equally the media has a responsibility in how they report.”
Kearns added that ultimately, the conversation fades away when the next round of soccer fixtures arrives and the discussion moves to the action on the pitch. “This helps bury inconvenient stories,” he said.
The Christmas period is action-packed with many marquee matches, which has the potential “to bury uncomfortable questions,” and Kearns says “we cannot allow that to happen.”
“Progress was very hard won and is very easily lost if we do not continue to give racism that level of importance.”