Chelsea and the Metropolitan Police are investigating allegations that Raheem Sterling was racially abused by a member of the crowd during Saturday’s Premier League match at Stamford Bridge.
Social media users posted a video of an incident during the first half of Chelsea’s 2-0 victory during which the 24-year-old England international was shouted at as he collected the ball from behind the goal.
The target of the abuse, Sterling, issued a statement on Instagram saying newspapers ‘fuel racism’ in how they portray young black footballers in the media when compared with their white counterparts.
To highlight his point Sterling juxtaposed media coverage of two Manchester City players – one white and black – buying a house for their family, and the contrasting media coverage that was used to frame the stories in a positive and negative light.
For a high-profile current England international of Sterling’s stature to come out in this way is significant. His words sparked a nationwide debate on racism in English football, reinforced by the shocking events at the north London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur just a week earlier in which a fan threw a banana at Arsenal’s Gabonese forward Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.
The focus on racism in the media is also unique. Sterling’s post on social media has forced the UK media at mainstream level to examine their coverage of black footballers in England, with Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville among those to question the media’s framing and coverage of black players.
Neville stated that the coverage is often ‘not right’ and several high-profile black players and former pros have backed Sterling’s comments publicly, offering their own experiences of racism in football.
The incident involving Sterling shows the complacency that, if not sufficiently addressed, threatens to creep back into English football and allow racism to begin to be expressed more openly, a throwback to the ugly years of the 1970s and 1980s in English football.
The incident is also a reminder of the impact of the Brexit vote and how the Leave campaign’s demonisation of immigrants and refugees has driven the re-emergence of racism from the terraces.
In May, the UN special rapporteur on racism Professor Tendayi Achiume highlighted a Brexit-related growth in “explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance” in the UK, stating that “the environment after the referendum has made racial and ethnic minorities more vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance.”