Subscribe to the Totally Football Show here…
We’re lucky to have Raheem Sterling.
In many years to come, when youngsters keen to learn about the history of the game ask one of us hoary old souls, still hopefully with one or two marbles rolling around in our heads, which footballers we were most glad we were around for, hopefully we’ll mention Sterling.
A PR person might have advised the most prominent black English footballer around at the moment to keep quiet. Don’t rock the boat, don’t point fingers at people who make decisions, stick to football. History has shown us that it often doesn’t end well for people who speak up.
It would have been easy to do nothing, to think that it wasn’t the responsibility of footballers to help their community, that their job was to play football and entertain people and that’s it.
But Sterling has spoken. And it’s not just that he’s spoken, but the manner in which he has spoken that is so valuable. On Newsnight this week Sterling, as he has done before, spoke not only about the racism he has suffered but about the structural racism that football is a part of.
“This is a time to speak on these subjects, speak on injustice, especially in my field,” Sterling said. “There’s something like 500 players in the Premier League and a third of them are black and we have no representation of us in the hierarchy, no representation of us in the coaching staffs.
“There’s Steven Gerrard, your Frank Lampards, you have your Sol Campbells and you have your Ashley Coles. All had great careers, all played for England. At the same time, they’ve all respectfully done their coaching badges to coach at the highest level and the two that haven’t been given the right opportunities are the two black former players.
“I feel like that’s what’s lacking here, it’s not just taking the knee, it is about giving people the chance they deserve.”
Sterling’s comments are particularly valuable because they can’t be written off as just someone with a grudge, a coach looking for work who can’t find any and dismissed by those who want to dismiss them as the complaints of the embittered. Sterling is 25 and thus, hopefully, at least a decade away from this being his individual problem. But he recognises that the problem is massive, wider than any one individual’s personal experience and bigger than football.
And he could easily have been discouraged. We don’t need to go into much detail about the media narrative that has followed Sterling around for his whole career, but the underlying message in all of those pieces about how much money it is deemed appropriate that he spends – whether that’s too little on a Ryanair flight, or too much on a set of taps for his mum – is: know your place. Conform to what we expect. Don’t live any sort of life. Keep quiet. Don’t speak. That could grind a man down.
But he has spoken. He has felt emboldened enough to do so. That at least, in a world that isn’t providing a huge amount to be optimistic about at the moment, is encouraging. As Darren Lewis wrote in the Daily Mirror on Tuesday: ‘The numbers are no secret but Sterling’s willingness to attack them so damningly is the latest sign that this is the last generation prepared simply to grin and bear it.’
This is obviously not to say that Sterling and, in a different way Marcus Rashford with his wide range of good deeds in the last few months and indeed years, are the first professional footballers to make positive contributions to society, but these are men so prominent now that they will provide inspiration to younger generations. They will look at Sterling and Rashford and feel emboldened to do the same. For all their wealth and status, there is a recognition that society has a responsibility to help those who don’t have what they do.
Sterling’s prominence is important because he’s has the most to lose. He could easily have considered what negative consequences could come from speaking, but he didn’t. “I don’t really think about my job when things like this happen,” said Sterling. “I think about what is right.”
What’s right in this case is his voice. When he first got into the Liverpool team in around 2013, it was pretty obvious that this was a talent on the pitch, likely to reach the very top. What we didn’t know back then was that his voice would match his talent.
We’re lucky to have Raheem Sterling.
You can listen to the latest edition of the Totally Football Show here, and even better you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.