A comment on Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher’s remarks about Raheem Sterling.

It was just a shock to hear them finally say it.

 

“What is the perception of Raheem Sterling in this country for most people, who buy papers and read media stuff online?” asked Jamie Carragher, co-presenting Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show.  “The perception”, he said, immediately answering his own question, “is of a young, flash, black kid from London”. He continued: ““Anyone reading that, anyone writing that – I can assure you that is absolute, utter nonsense. It’s garbage. Raheem Sterling’s a mouse.” [1]

 

It was a relief to hear them say what so many had been thinking for so long, and to know that a conversation about this subject could at last begin. It was such a relief to hear the issue acknowledged at last. But, on waking this morning, there are further questions. Why did it take so long for Carragher and Gary Neville, one of the show’s other presenters, to speak up? Why did being perceived as a young flash black kid from London – which would not have been a crime in any case – lead to levels of abuse the like of which Neville said he had never seen?

 

Imagine that you are back at school and the senior pupils announce in assembly that a quiet and friendly classmate of yours has been mercilessly targeted by the biggest bullies in the playground for years on end, that they get it now, that he had come to them in confidence before and could not believe why it was happening. Your reaction might be: “well, yes, we knew that, we’ve seen him suffer for ages, at least now you can start to sort it out”. Or your reaction might be: “I saw it happening but didn’t want to say anything in case it turned the anger towards me.” Or your reaction might be: “why are you telling us? You’re the seniors, it’s your job to go to the teachers and sort it out.”

 

Whatever your response, it is obvious that football’s teachers – the Football Association and the football clubs around the country – and football’s seniors – the ex-players and pundits, the editors, the producers and the older commentators and journalists – have collectively failed Raheem Sterling. They have treated the abuse he gets as part and parcel of the game when it is clear from Neville’s own words that it is not. Just consider that Neville was in the same dressing room as Beckham the season he returned from his red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, a season when the abuse against his best friend reached astonishing levels – and that Sterling was targeted by hatred that made this pale in comparison. That is a reality too horrific for many to contemplate.

 

This reality is so awful that many people will become numb to it and look away. There is something about discussing racism that makes many uncomfortable. Many black people often downplay it because it is too painful and don’t want to be seen to make a fuss. Many white people often downplay it because it is too grim to admit, yes, I see those attitudes among my friends and family. It’s why we move on so quickly from the game’s race-related scandals.

 

It’s too painful to reflect upon, isn’t? Many of us go to football to escape but here it is, putting society’s ugliness under a microscope. Eniola Aluko, one of the finest forwards her country has seen, saw her international career ended as the result of which her national team manager was found guilty of racially abusing her. [2]

 

When Rio Ferdinand’s family saw John Terry in court due to a charge of racial abuse against Ferdinand’s brother Anton, Ferdinand later revealed that “there were bullets in the post…My mum had her windows smashed and bullets put through her door, and ended up in hospital because of the stress.” At the time many might have seen this harassment as a series of isolated incidents – maybe many didn’t want to look, it was too painful – but now, in the current political climate, we can see that harassment as the extreme end of something worrying, unsettling and deeply wrong within our society. When we look at that harassment it perhaps explains why Ashley Cole, a pupil called upon to ask if he had seen a popular pupil abusing a fellow classmate, decided not to tell tales. [3]

 

That episode involving the two Ferdinands, Terry and Cole arguably ended the career of one of the greatest centre-backs the country has known – and he wasn’t even anywhere near the incident in question at the time. Most poignantly, it tore childhood friends apart, people who had come through the brutal world of professional football together. Whether or not they have been reconciled is not the point. The point is that these toxic dynamics have been allowed to play out time and again and the school’s authorities have chosen to look the other way.

 

Perhaps you find my school analogy more than a little patronising, maybe you find it infantilising or that it doesn’t fully work. That’s a shame – because the more I watch Neville’s comments on Raheem Sterling the more I see a schoolkid in the corner, getting pulverised or ignored by everyone who walks past, and every passerby knowing that, in this school of English football, there are some kids who just deserve it, you know the ones, some kids who are just due a kicking, you know how it goes, they might get spat on each lunchtime and maybe even punched now and then but they’ll come through it, they’ll be fine one day and we’ll all have a laugh about it looking back. Or maybe they won’t – maybe there’ll be a day when they don’t come into school anymore, where no-one will really know the kid well enough to ask why, and no-one will have the courage to name the bullies, because they are still there and scarier than before, they’ve got rich and powerful parents, and eventually no-one will talk about the kid, mention their names, and not worry about any of that because there is a new kid to bully now, a new reason to keep our heads down, get on with it, pass by the phlegm-covered kid and shamefully say nothing.

 

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[1] The full transcript of this segment has kindly been provided by Football365.com:

https://www.football365.com/news/full-sterling-transcript-neville-carra-discuss-abuse

 

[2] The incident involving Eniola Aluko is detailed here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2017/10/18/mark-sampson-found-guilty-racially-abusing-eni-aluko-drew-spence/

 

[3] The incident involving the Ferdinands, Terry and Cole is detailed here:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/england/11094964/Rio-Ferdinand-calls-John-Terry-an-idiot-and-says-he-does-not-speak-to-Chelsea-captain-or-Ashley-Cole-after-race-row.html

 

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