An easy target: Even when he's winning, Sterling's losing
Even today, black players have to prove themselves off the field as well as on it
For certain black players in most sporting codes, it appears that even when you’re winning, you’re still losing.
The past 12 months have quite possibly been the greatest in English footballer Raheem Sterling’s career. He was nominated for the Professional Footballers Association Player of the Year alongside Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon and his two Manchester City teammates Leroy Sane (the eventual winner) and Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson. Manchester City had already tied up another English Premier League title – with Sterling contributing 18 goals and 11 assists in his 33 league matches. It came as no surprise that he was included in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man England squad for the Fifa World Cup beginning in a few weeks. It was truly deserved for a player who, had he let his circumstances deter him, could have crumbled and wasted his undoubted talent.
Last year, a buffoon named Karl Anderson was jailed for an unprovoked racist attack on Sterling, telling him he hoped that his “mother and child wake up dead in the morning you n**ger”. He went on to repeatedly kick the City player, leaving him bruised.Sterling was born in an unglamorous side of Kingston, Jamaica – where his father was shot dead when he was two years old. His mother moved him and his sister to an estate in London. He would later attend a special school because of “behaviour problems”. It has been reported that a teacher once told him, when he was 10 years old, that “if you carry on the way you’re going, by the time you’re 17 you’ll either be playing for England or you’ll be in prison”. There were other instances, where he was criticised for fathering two children from different relationships.
Certainly, for a reputedly snarky and often partisan tabloid culture in the UK, Sterling has given them ammunition – the latest being a gun tattoo on his right foot, which he later explained was actually a tribute to his late father. In his Instagram post, he wrote: “I made a promise to myself i would never touch a gun in my life time, I shoot with my right foot so it has a deeper meaning. N still unfinished [sic]”. But Tuesday’s edition of The Sun newspaper’s backpage screamed: “Raheem shoots himself in foot” – quoting anti-gun activists, who called for his expulsion from the England team. In particular, The Sun has been diligent in its attempts to tarnish his talent – referring to him as “footie idiot Raheem Sterling” and calling him “greedy” after his big-money move from Liverpool to Manchester City. They also pinned England’s Euro 2016 failures on him, quickly calling him an “England failure” and “obscene” for buying his mother a home.The Guardian’s columnist Barney Ronay’s 2017 op-ed, “How Raheem Sterling was made into an easy target for gathered intangible rage” touched on how “football thrives on easy targets, on muster points for all that gathered intangible rage”, and how the accusations of players lacking toughness or balls had often “been said in the past about black footballers in England. It was said, quite a lot, about Sterling.”Thank heavens he never let the relentless daggers thrown in his direction pierce his brain, for he seems to have some great mental fortitude. Strength of mind is a prerequisite for any sportsman, but particularly when black and navigating predominantly white spaces, where it appears you’re expected to show gratitude for being “allowed in”. It also seems to me that like newly-elected Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, like SuperSport rugby pundit Ashwin Willemse, and so many others (including former Chelsea youth-team players Gwyn Williams and Graham Rix, who claimed to have been subjected to racial abuse during their time at the club) to survive you must also get to a realisation that you may never be able to shift negative perceptions of you, regardless of your excellence. There is always some way to distract from your talents.
Top flanker Kolisi has had to deal with this attitude from the get-go. His 28 Bok caps and over 100 Super Rugby appearances for the Stormers don’t matter as much as the fact that he married a white woman (racist trolls referred to Rachel Kolisi as a “waste of good white genes” when the pair married), nor does it seem to matter that he has shown great leadership skills for quite some time now. But Bok coach Rassie Erasmus had to calm frayed nerves of racists by assuring them this week that Kolisi’s ascension to the captaincy wasn’t a decision to satisfy quota protocols.“I know Siya is a good leader and I am excited about what he can offer us,” offered Erasmus. “I coached him since he was 18 years old when he arrived at the Stormers from the Eastern Cape and through the academy until he played for the Stormers. I know him as a good rugby player … The players we have in this squad deserve to be here and I am not trying to fabricate things.”
Sports might thrive on easy targets, and in the case of black sportsmen, it almost always appears to be more at play than just their on-field performances.