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Raheem Sterling, Chelsea and the racist media coverage of black athletes

Studies support the Manchester City forward’s concerns about unfair treatment

Raheem Sterling has a point.

The Manchester City forward was allegedly the victim of racist taunting by a Chelsea fan during the clubs’ Premier League match in southwest London on Dec. 8. According to video posted on social media, the male spectator appeared to call Sterling, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, a “f—ing black c—” while Sterling was retrieving a ball from the byline. (The fan later told the British tabloid Daily Mail that he actually said, “Manc c—.”)

Chelsea and the Metropolitan Police immediately announced they were reviewing the video footage, and within two days, four Chelsea fans were suspended from attending future games “pending further investigations.”

A day after the match, Sterling took to his personal Instagram account to address the incident. The 24-year-old said he laughed off the racist taunts at the time because “I don’t expect no better,” but then he turned his attention to the British media, which he finds culpable of racially stereotypical coverage of black and white athletes.

View this post on Instagram

Good morning I just want to say , I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better. For example you have two young players starting out there careers both play for the same team, both have done the right thing. Which is buy a new house for there mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are, but look how the news papers get there message across for the young black player and then for the young white payer. I think this in unacceptable both innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour, so for all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.

A post shared by Raheem Sterling x 😇 (@sterling7) on

Using the example of Manchester City teammates Tosin Adarabioyo, who is black, and Phil Foden, who is white, Sterling provided evidence from the Daily Mail, the country’s second-largest tabloid, and its accounts of the two players buying homes for their respective mothers: Adarabioyo was criticized for spending 2.5 million pounds on a house “despite having never started a Premier League match,” while Foden, dubbed a “starlet” by the publication, was applauded for spending 2 million pounds on a “home for his mum.”

Sterling lambasted the British media’s coverage for helping “fuel” the sort of racist and “aggressive behaviour” he witnessed against Chelsea.

He has a point.

Academic research dating to at least the 1960s shows a strong link between racist ideologies and sports media messages. American researchers found in 1979 that negative news stories are more likely to be recalled better when they are about “outgroups,” which, based on overwhelmingly white newsrooms, are usually groups of racial minorities. Authors Paul Hartmann and Charles Husband argued in their 1974 book Racism and the Mass Media that British media provided a negative image of black Britons to the white population, thus formulating negative beliefs and attitudes about racial minorities.

Multiple studies show that black athletes are portrayed in the media as self-centered, selfish and arrogant, which matches up directly with the coverage of Sterling in the United Kingdom over the past few years. When Sterling asked for a pay raise in 2015 after winning the Golden Boy award, given annually to the most impressive young player in Europe, he was dubbed “greedy” by The Telegraph. The Sun called him “obscene” for having the nerve to buy his mother a bathroom sink in the wake of England’s early elimination at the 2016 UEFA European Championship. In 2018, that same outlet published a point-by-point price breakdown of each of Sterling’s luxury vehicles. In May, Twitter user @adamkeyworth posted a 31-tweet thread of the racist and racially coded media coverage of Sterling from British newspapers The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Star, The Sunday Times and The Telegraph. He has been condemned for everything from bargain shopping to driving a “pimped-up” Mercedes SUV to proposing to his “long-suffering” girlfriend. (The Sun, really reading the room, released a statement calling accusations that it was at fault for the Dec. 8 incident “ridiculous and offensive” and said its coverage of Sterling’s “off-field behaviour has nothing to do with skin colour.”)

Whether in Britain, America or elsewhere, sports commentators present a rigid dichotomy between black and white athletes. When black athletes succeed, it’s due to innate athletic ability. Whites succeed because of some form of intellectual superiority. A 1997 content analysis of English soccer coverage found that while commentators overall reacted positively to black soccer players, the commentators would attribute black players’ success to their physicality and the white players’ to “psychological characteristics.” When Tiger Woods, who is of Caucasian, black, Native American and Asian descent (or “Cablinasian”), would win a golf tournament, commentators were less likely to use racial stereotypes mostly attributed to black athletes (such as not exhibiting composure). But when he struggled, he was “portrayed” as black.

These racialized media messages have been shown to naturalize the athletic and societal differences between blacks and whites and, according to researchers in the Netherlands, “can be highly influential in structuring ideas about race and ethnicity.”

Which is why Sterling’s accusation that British tabloids fuel racism and aggressive behavior is valid.

A 2003 study of British soccer broadcasts found that focus groups of blacks were more likely to identify “media sport racial stereotypes” than whites, who neither had awareness of racial stereotypes of black athletes nor accepted the reality of them. A 2008 study found that white American high school boys “complied with the notion of blacks’ ‘natural’ physical superiority” based on racialized sports media coverage.

Male sports, in particular, have been identified as promoters of stereotypical and divisive descriptions of black athletes, which through the amplification of the 24/7 sports media landscape can lead to what happened at Stamford Bridge last week.

Sterling concluded his Instagram post with a plea for media outlets to do better. “For all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.”

He has a point.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"