Written by Rory Smith
That day, Raheem Sterling looked up and tuned in. Ordinarily when he is on the field, he loses himself so completely in the game that the noise of the crowd becomes an indistinct murmur, each voice lost in the hum of tens of thousands.
But as Sterling approached the touchline to collect the ball for a corner in Manchester City’s Premier League game at Chelsea on Dec. 8, something forced him to switch his focus.
He remembers making eye contact with a handful of fans in the front row of the Matthew Harding Stand at Stamford Bridge. Like all players, he is used to hostility, particularly away from home. But what he could see was different. It looked, to him, like hatred.
“The way they were looking at me, I had to see where all this anger was coming from,” he said. “I was listening in to hear what they were saying.” What he picked up, he said, he dismissed immediately: “Nah, that can’t be what I heard.”
Video suggested his suspicion was right. One fan, in particular, appeared to have screamed a racial obscenity at him. The consequences added credence: Not long after the game ended, Chelsea announced it had barred four fans from attending games, pending an investigation into whether Sterling had been racially abused. The incident was reported to London police.
It was neither Sterling’s first racist encounter — as a teenager, he once was head-butted by a stranger on a Liverpool street — nor the first time he had experienced racism in an English stadium. In his first match at Everton’s Goodison Park after joining Manchester City, he said, he was walking toward the tunnel when a boy with his father called him a “black something.”
As he left Stamford Bridge that evening in December, though, Sterling kept churning over what he had heard, what had happened. By the time he returned to Manchester, he decided that it was “too much now.” He wanted to say something.
He spent all night thinking of the best way to do it. He did some research, got his thoughts in order. The next morning, as he sat in the back seat of a car on the 30-minute drive from his home to Manchester City’s training facility, he composed a 207-word message to accompany his thoughts. It focused not just on what had happened at Stamford Bridge, but why. Sterling posted it, with two images, to his Instagram account.
“I am not normally the person to talk a lot,” the message began. “But when I think I need my point to be heard I will speak up.”
A Story to Tell
A few weeks ago, Sterling returned to visit friends near Wembley, the part of northwest London where he grew up. He remains intimately connected to the place: He said he was in discussions with the local council to find an appropriate site for a sporting and educational institute, somewhere to provide opportunities for children (and their parents) from backgrounds similar to his.
It is a personal and, until now, a private thing, something he says is less his responsibility as a professional athlete and more an innate desire to “show light” to a new generation. He wants his story to give others like him hope.
“Not just to be a footballer,” Sterling said, “but to do whatever they want to do.”
It is not hard to find inspiration in Sterling’s rise. His story has long been crowbarred into the narrative often expected of athletes: the deprived upbringing, the triumph over adversity, that comforting fairy tale told of so many athletes in which greatness flowers best in soil left untended.
His father was shot dead in Jamaica when he was 2. His mother moved to England in the hope of giving her children a better life. Sterling remembers her “fight to get jobs,” the long hours she put in, the days he and his sister would help her clean hotel rooms before school.
Sterling has always been keen not to allow exaggerations to flourish, to correct any poetic license taken by those telling his story. In 2016, he told The Mail on Sunday that his childhood home was not in a “rough, rough” area; in a piece for The Players’ Tribune last year, he said that while his family never had much money, his mother always made sure he and his sister had what they needed.
He knows well enough where he came from. He could see Wembley Stadium from his garden, but there were plenty of other places where the horizon was far more oppressive. The last time he went back, he said in an interview last week, he looked at those streets not far from where he had grown up, those high-rises, and saw “a prison, with no way out.”
His meteoric rise to being one of the finest English players of his generation should, then, be a cause for celebration for England. At 15, Liverpool beat back competition from Arsenal and Manchester United to sign Sterling from Queens Park Rangers. By the time he was 17, he had made his debut for England. Before he was 20, he had been selected for a World Cup.
In 2015, Manchester City made him, for a time, the most expensive English player in history, paying 49 million pounds, or about $63.7 million, to pry him from Anfield at the express recommendation of Pep Guardiola. Guardiola would not arrive in England to become City’s manager for another year, but he knew that he wanted to work with Sterling.
The collaboration has proved enormously successful. Sterling has won a Premier League title — with another in his grasp this season — and he played a key role in England’s run to the World Cup semifinals last summer. City rewarded him with a new contract a few months ago, at least partly to ward off interest from Real Madrid. He has more than lived up to his promise. Guardiola described him as “incredible.”
Few, though, would suggest England has cherished Sterling. A frosty reception at Anfield may be unavoidable since his departure, but he attracts opprobrium elsewhere, too. He has been jeered by his own fans while playing for England and was attacked and racially abused by a Manchester United supporter on the doorstep of City’s training facility. One newspaper, after England’s elimination from Euro 2016 by Iceland, called Sterling a “footie idiot.” It was not an epithet attached to any other player on that squad.
Sterling has no doubt why such hostility has taken root.
“From the very start of my career, there has been a perception of a flashy kid from London: loves cars, loves the flashy lifestyle,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m a saint or anything, but that is the complete opposite of who I am.
“These people do not know me. They will define me by what they read about me; that is how they will treat me. When people are making the public believe you are a character you aren’t, that is hurtful, and it is degrading.”
Nor has he any doubt why that picture has been built up: The way he is covered, the way he is presented by the news media, is rooted in the fact that he is black. “One million percent,” he said.
It is that conviction that led him to take the risk, and to speak up, to become part of the global conversation — led by the likes of Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James — about equality.
A Media Creation
The example that sticks with Sterling is the one about his cars. In 2016, a handful of Britain’s tabloids ran articles that claimed he was “looking for a seventh car so that he has one for each day of the week.” None of them quoted Sterling on that particular ambition. Each ran a set of pictures of the forward behind the wheel of various vehicles.
“These were cars that I had had between the ages of 17 and 23,” he said. “But they made it that Raheem has one for Monday, one for Tuesday, and so on. All these cars are gone, sold. But what do you do when you sell a car? You buy a new one. But they have a picture of me in each car, so the story is that I drive a car each day. People see that and think that’s what he’s up to — buying cars, living the best life.”
For the record, Sterling said, he currently has one car, and his partner, Paige Milian, has another. He is, he said, “in the process of selling mine, to get a more subtle one.”
It is not just the cars, though. Sterling has made headlines for, variously: flying on a budget airline; eating at Greggs, a British sandwich chain; and shopping at Poundland, a discount shop.
Whenever one of these articles emerges, his friends send him a link — accompanied by a host of laughing emojis — on their group chat. Sometimes Sterling laughs, too. “There is a lot more going on in this world than me going to Greggs,” he said.
The endlessness of it, though, wears him down. “What is the need for it?” he said. “What is the need for this story? Sometimes you ask what the motive is.”
More pernicious than the content of the articles, in his mind, is the way they are framed: the little asides, the giddy, superfluous mentions of his weekly wage and, in particular, the dog-whistle words — the hints that this young, successful, high-profile black footballer is not spending the money he has earned correctly or that he has not earned it at all.
“It is not just me,” he said. “Whenever you see a report on a black player or a black entertainer it has to end up with money, or bling, or cars, or something flashy. With a successful white person, it is nice, short, sweet, what a lovable person. Name me one white player who is thought of as ‘blingy.’”
Cristiano Ronaldo’s name is offered. “If he is showing you his car, showing he is on top of the world, if that is what he puts out, then call him flashy. But I’m not showing you that, so why are you calling me that?
“It is a stereotype of black people: chains and jewelry, bling and money. These are words that are associated with black people. If I was showing 10 cars on my driveway, if I was on Instagram biting my gold chain, or with two Rolexes on, you can call me flashy. But you can’t label me as that if I am not portraying that.”
That was the trend Sterling identified in the Instagram post he composed in the car the day after the racist incident at Stamford Bridge: the steady drip of stories and details that paint a distorted and stereotypical picture of black players. Where a white player (Phil Foden) buying his family a house is portrayed as sensible and covered without embellishment, a report about a black player (Tosin Adarabioyo) doing the same is laced with hints of unearned excess.
Sterling noted, too, that when he flew on a budget airline he was not described as humble or praised for his pragmatism and parsimony: “It was: ‘You have got all this money — why are you on easyJet?’”
It is a subject that Sterling has thought a lot about. He has discussed it at length with Aidy Ward, his agent and favored sounding board, and with his captain at City, Vincent Kompany.
“Vinnie made a really good point,” Sterling said. “He said it’s not the fault of the people writing the stories: It is because there are not enough black and minority ethnic people in high office in the media.
“If there was someone else of Jamaican descent who the people writing the stories have to answer to, they would look at it and say, ‘It can’t run because of how it will look.’ They would understand this side of the story. They have lived on this side of the world. They understand how these people feel.
“For someone who has never felt certain things, you can’t make that change. I am not saying the papers are doing it on purpose. They might not know they are doing it in a racist way. I would say it is more just not thinking. That’s why I said in that post that people need to be careful of what is written, how they write, the little words.
“The people that read it take it in and judge straightaway who the person is. That is where I was coming from. I was not saying they are racist. But they are fueling it for the people reading it. It is constant, and I don’t think it is fair, but who am I?”
It is an apposite question, the answer to which changed, fundamentally, that day in December. Footballer and father are the first two that come to Sterling’s mind, but it is the broader scope of who he is, and who he can be, that most engages him.
Sterling takes inspiration from Jay-Z, someone who “made money and then looked for the next generation, put everything in place to find someone to follow him.” He continued: “If I don’t do it, if the one after me doesn’t do it, it will just keep going. When football is finished, will I live off what I did on the field? No. I want to be able to help people be the best they can be.”
What he has realized, though, is that for him — for anyone — to have any effect, the playing field has to be level. Black success should not come with a caveat or an asterisk. That is what made him write that post. It is what made him speak up. “I just wanted people to pause and think,” he said. He wanted to challenge the news media to “do better.” Just as he did, he wanted those who create these images, who perpetuate the stereotypes, to look up and to tune in.