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If football is a force for good we must talk about racism

Sterling has skilfully brought together two forms of discrimination
Chief Sports Writer

By now, you’ll all have heard about the racial abuse experienced by Raheem Sterling during last Saturday’s game between Chelsea and Manchester City. You’ll probably also have heard about the banana skin thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the north London derby the previous weekend. But you probably didn’t hear about the Premier League manager who once confided his opinion that black players “belong in the trees”. Or the former manager who casually dropped the word “chinky” into a briefing with national newspaper journalists, forcing the club’s panicked press officer to scurry around the room, insisting it was a joke and beseeching people not to write about it.

And of course, nobody did. Which is also why you didn’t hear about the manager who, when confronted by a group of foreign journalists seeking the latest on the club’s new Japanese signing, spread his arms wide, narrowed his eyes, and in his best cod-Asian accent screeched: “SO WHA’ YA WANNA KNOW?” Or the current manager who referred to his distinctly average-sized African defender as “a monster”. Or the trophy-winning manager who, when informed about a member of the press pack about to go on honeymoon to Thailand, remarked with a wry smile: “You’re going to Thailand… *with* your wife?”

Virtually every football journalist in the business has a whole stack of these stories. These are the tales we swap and share after hours, behind closed doors; once newspapers have gone to print and the web team have packed up for the night. It’s not just managers, either: in the course of work we’ve all come across an utterance from some agent or scout or coach or fellow journalist that lies somewhere on the sliding scale from “raise of the eyebrows” to “offence under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006”.

So why haven’t you seen any of this reported? Partly, of course, because it’s legally impossible, given the hostility of defamation law in England and Wales. Partly, too, because of the industry’s instinctively clandestine culture – off-the-record briefings, anonymous sources, the sort of in-house omerta that claims to uphold professional solidarity when in reality it serves only as a convenient way for older, more established journalists to tell younger ones to know their place. But there’s a broader picture here, and in the days since Sterling’s extraordinary Instagram post on Sunday morning, I’ve been thinking about it more and more.

You see, there’s long been a fundamental problem with the racism debate in this country: a startling number of people don’t really know what it is. Never suffered it, never been affected by it, never really examined it in any great detail. And thus labouring under the first misconception of racism: that it is, essentially, all about incidents. That it must consist of a single, discrete act. That it has to be intentional. Put more simply: there’s an extremely high proportion of the population who believe that racism is simply stuff like shouting the N-word, putting a brick through a window, desecrating a Jewish cemetery, throwing bananas, and nothing else.

For lots of people, this is an extremely comfortable arrangement. It allows racism to be written off as the malign work of a few incorrigible miscreants, thus exonerating everybody else. It allows journalists and cultural commentators to frown and look concerned for a bit, and then go back to previewing Liverpool vs Manchester United at the weekend. For the unenlightened, the idea that racism can be structural and endemic, subtle and unseen, unspoken or even unintentional, is about as intelligible as calculus. For them, it’s a binary thing: you’re either a racist, or you’re not. Indeed these days, especially in online discourse, you often see this dialectic weaponised by the reactionary right as a sort of absurdist distraction.

You write: “Football’s recruitment processes remain too loosely formalised, favouring existing networks of patronage and encouraging often unwitting discrimination against coaches from ethnic minority backgrounds.”

They reply: “how dare you call every white person in football racist, people like u r the real scum.”

Still, we persist. Because following on from the first misconception is a second: that because black players no longer get the N-word shouted at them and you don’t see as much National Front literature at games as you used to, racism is, to a large extent, a problem we had in the past that got solved. “I don’t think we should continue talking about that,” said West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini this week when asked if racism is still a problem in football. “You give too much importance to some small people that have stupid minds.”

What Sterling has done so skilfully, with such devastating wisdom and insight, is to take these two forms of discrimination – the violent public act and the insidious, unacknowledged bias – and bind them irrevocably together. And of course there’s a wider context to be considered here: the role of technology and social media in allowing the hateful to congregate more easily, the role of our political class in replenishing the well of white supremacy in order to win elections, the role of toxic masculinity in encouraging the transgression of societal norms in the name of absolutely legendary banter.

But Sterling wasn’t wrong to single out the media. As gatekeepers, informants, opinion-formers, we’ve done a pretty shoddy job. There’ll always be racism. There’ll always be corruption and spite in men’s hearts. We’re not born tolerant, in the same way we’re not born prejudiced. But where we’ve categorically failed is in policing the culture of football, pushing back on the micro-prejudices that contribute to a broader feeling of alienation, educating ourselves on the nature of racism as it’s experienced on a daily basis, rebooting our industry to make it remotely reflective of the public we serve.

Pep Guardiola was not challenged on his controversial comments this week (Getty)

So it’s relevant that when Pep Guardiola spoke earlier this week about how his kids go to school “with Indian people, black people, normal people”, nobody remotely challenged him on it. And that was in a live press conference, in front of a bank of microphones. Or when a prominent black player like Sol Campbell or Yaya Toure claims they have been the victim of structural racism, the natural reaction is not to listen and learn, but point and laugh. Or when a manager makes some racially-charged crack in the off-camera section of a press conference, they are generally met not with awkward silence, but hearty laughter, because this is football, and let’s be mates.

Look, nobody likes talking about this stuff. We all learned to love football long before we learned the intricacies of racial politics. And so the instinct is always to elide, to explain away, to look the other way and move on. “To be fair,” Gary Neville admitted on a brilliant, surgical discussion of the Sterling issue on Monday Night Football this week, “I’ve probably thought about this more in the past 24 hours than I ever have done. There have been times – on this show – when we’ve avoided taking on the subject.”

But if we’re serious about the power of football as a force for good, then it’s not a responsibility we can shirk any longer. That doesn’t mean we have to shout about race every week, in every column and match report. It is, however, a continuous process, a slow and a tough process of education and awareness and sensitivity, not simply a switch you can flick on and off like a fan heater. We’re exceptionally lucky to cover this game. But if we can’t face talking about the smaller injustices, we don’t have a hope of tackling the larger ones.