Defiant Raheem Sterling made us all think again… we can do far better

After the Manchester City star was targeted by racist abuse from bilious Chelsea fans, he suggested newspapers had helped fuel their hatred.

Sterling has asked us to spare ‘a second thought’ about giving fair publicity to black players and affording everyone an equal chance.

I welcome that and, while I have thought about racism often in the past, I have considered the issue more deeply during the past day or so.

I hope colleagues and rivals have done the same. I think they should.

While I don’t believe newspapers are chiefly to blame for the ugly scenes at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, I believe we could have done far better.

I think some reporting about Sterling and other black players has been unfair and I’ve felt uneasy with some coverage of Sterling’s lifestyle.

I also think there are many misconceptions about this newspaper and the industry in general, so it would be no bad thing if we discussed ourselves more openly.

We debated whether I should even write this article. Especially as I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a white man discussing what might or might not be racism.

In writing this, I don’t want to just don a hairshirt and indulge in self-serving self-flagellation in the hope others might say nice things.

I’d rather try to discuss, honestly, the issue Sterling has challenged us to think about.

Sterling is right to have used his position as an England international and Premier League champion to do so.

He has been bold because he may have wondered whether aiming criticism at newspapers could make him more of a target in future. I hope and believe that will not be the case.

I don’t believe I or those I work with are racist.

But is it possible some newspaper coverage of Sterling and other black players feeds into the treatment he gets from supporters, some of whom may be aggressively racist? Yes.

If people hold racist views and read about the ‘bling’ lifestyles of young black footballers, this can reinforce their racism and make them more likely to act hatefully.

It’s also true Chelsea have a problem with racism. They’re not the only ones but, as exemplified by the ugly incident on the Paris Metro in 2015, they have a more serious issue than most.

It would be good if the decent majority of Chelsea fans challenged racists more stridently.

Newspapers can also do more. Journalists should always be trying to understand the world more fully.

Yet nobody is suggesting criticism of Sterling and other black players should be off-limits.

For instance, I hold the unpopular view The Sun’s story about Sterling’s gun tattoo was a legitimate talking point, at a time when violent crime is high.

Personally I wouldn’t have made it the front page lead.

That is not least because there are many people desperate for any excuse to kick this newspaper and that we should sometimes be more careful not to play into their hands.

It would be a mistake to imagine ‘the media’ is one great uniform group, always in agreement. That’s no more true than in any other industry.

On any newspaper, there is friction between sports journalists at the back end of the paper and news journalists at the front.

And also between writers out in the field who deal with Sterling and other players on a regular basis, and those who work in offices who do not. There are conflicting views expressed about many issues.

I had an argument with two sports-desk colleagues about the way we handled the ridiculous penalty Sterling was awarded against Shakhtar Donetsk.

There was no suggestion Sterling had deliberately cheated but I felt that, in our overall coverage, we were more critical of Sterling than we may have been about another player in that same situation.

It certainly wasn’t due to overt racism — and I didn’t feel the need to even discuss Sterling’s race with the colleagues I argued against.

But had race originally played a part in the way Sterling’s public image was constructed and how he might, therefore, be reported on? Again, quite possibly, yes.

Black people are over-represented in football and many other sports yet they are significantly under-represented in the media.

That’s not good for an industry which helps form the world view of others. It must be addressed.

Coverage would benefit in many ways if there was more diversity in newspaper sports sections.

It’s also true that while we undergo many largely irrelevant ‘training modules’ as part of our employment, we’re not educated in diversity.

I’d be happy to go on one. I’d probably learn something.

Of course, when you write for a newspaper, especially a popular tabloid, you have to be thick-skinned and decide on your own individual coping mechanisms to deal with widespread abuse, most of it unjustified.

Many people will read the headline on this piece and say ‘you’re from The Sun, you’re part of the problem’ and hammer me without even reading it.

Others will pick out a line or two and criticise, without mentioning my wider theme. All of that is fine. It goes with the territory.

It is also a choice. Unlike the colour of a person’s skin.

And while the kind of overt, hostile racism we witnessed at Chelsea on Saturday has become less common in football and wider society, casual racism is still common.

Personally, I can think of instances which I have challenged in my everyday life and instances which I haven’t challenged but should have done. Again, I thank Sterling for provoking me to think about that.

In his statement on Sunday, Sterling highlighted two similar stories published by the Daily Mail about two young City colleagues, Phil Foden and Tosin Adarabioyo.

Foden buying a £2million house for his mother was dealt with as a positive, while Adarabioyo owning a £2.25m property was presented with negativity.

The stories were written many months apart but their juxtaposition did not look good.

There’s an argument, though, the Adarabioyo story might easily have been written about a white player who was earning vast money but had not played any Premier League football by the age of 21.

For it’s also true there are people who don’t like white working-class kids doing well for themselves.

But the idea footballers are given too much too soon without achieving anything is a genuine talking point which is not racially motivated. Newspapers are not here to simply dish out the soft-focus spiel clubs want you to hear.

It should also be pointed out Sterling has a very good relationship with some white journalists, just like many white journalists are close with black players, ex- players, agents and even managers — although there are nowhere near enough of those.

We do not exist in separate worlds.

I wish we had even better relationships still because footballers and newspapers can be a force for good together — such as when Danny Rose felt trusting enough to open up about suffering from clinical depression earlier this year.

That really mattered. That genuinely might have helped save lives.

And going forward, a greater dialogue between footballers and news- papers could benefit everyone.

If that happens, Sterling will have succeeded.

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