Heroes and Villains, Harry Maguire and Raheem Sterling: How racism corrupts the media’s portrayal of English footballers

Enough was enough. ‘I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to be heard I will speak up’ – thus began Raheem Sterling’s Instagram post on 9 December 2018.

After years of vitriol from the media, he decided to take a stand. Sterling highlighted the Daily Mail’s treatment of himself and fellow City player Tosin Adarabioyo, and how it contrasted with that of Phil Foden. Adarabioyo was, Sterling pointed out, maliciously depicted ‘in a bad light’ in a manner that ‘helps fuel racism and aggressive behaviour’.

Meanwhile, Foden was presented as the epitome of generosity with his purchase of a family home (I’ll discuss the specifics of this later). Sterling’s intervention was timely and cutting – there could be no more pleas of ignorance on the matter: this was fuelling racism, conscious or otherwise; no matter how much the Daily Mail or its supporters want to dance around the subject.

Since then, admittedly, it seems Sterling has provoked the media into tempering its obsession with him. However, the Harry Maguire incident, and the media’s unwillingness to castigate the United captain and rallying around him, has brought the issue to the fore again on social media. 

How can one player be accused of assaulting a police officer with no aspersions cast on his character, whereas another player can do nothing of note yet be vilified at every turn in his life?

The answer, of course, is racism.

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Let me preface this by stating two things. Firstly, as things stand, we do not know the full details of the case against Maguire. All this article is based on is what we have been told from the official communications from the Greek authorities. Secondly, I have nothing against Maguire. He’s too boring to dislike, even as a United player, and he provides comedy value on the pitch. But as a reminder of the severity of the ongoing incident, one statement released so far says unambiguously – “The football player [Maguire] was verbally abusive to an officer and then hit him”.

Additionally, the issue at hand here is not really about how the media have framed stories about the incident. The issue is how this compares to how the media, in the past, have framed stories about Sterling. Ever since Sterling broke through at Liverpool, he has been treated appallingly by the media, and, by extension, many football fans. He was booed at some “neutral” football grounds after signing for City, for no valid reason whatsoever, but as a direct consequence of the media’s attacks.

Let’s pretend we were speaking to somebody who knew nothing about football. We told them that there are two England internationals who both play for big clubs. One has been accused of assaulting a police officer. The other’s greatest sin apparently seems to be leaving media darlings Liverpool. 

Which one would they guess has been vilified and harassed by the media? They’d guess at Maguire, obviously. But they’d be wrong. And the reason they’d be wrong, is because we hadn’t told them the most important bit of information: Maguire is white, and Sterling is black.

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The framing, language and imagery used to present Maguire’s arrest for the alleged assault of a police officer contrasts favourably to the framing, language and imagery used when Sterling – to use just one example – bought a house for his mum.

Do people realise how absurd it is that this sentence is objectively true? The media characterise Maguire more sympathetically while he sits festering in a Greek prison cell, than they did Sterling when he used the money he had earned from his hard-work to put a roof over his family’s head.

I dread to think what sort of a frenzy Sterling would provoke if it had been him who had been arrested with charges of assault of a police officer and bribery against him and his friends. In the past, he only had to treat himself to a pasty from Greggs, or buy some socks from Primark, to earn the ire of the press.

Maguire, meanwhile, can go on holiday and be accused of drunkenly assaulting a police officer, and the press merely asks how the ‘model professional’ ended up in custody. The Daily Mail emphasises that Maguire ‘is everything United wanted in a captain’. They attach a picture of him smiling with a fan. The Sun labels him ‘the ultimate role model’.

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The articles just bombard us with claims of Maguire’s good nature and utterly irrelevant background information. He left Leicester on good terms. Great, but he’s accused of punching a police officer. He’s intelligent. Great, again, but he’s accused of punching a police officer. ‘He hardly ever draws controversy’, the Guardian say – aside from when he’s assaulting police officers, that is. Adam Johnson never drew controversy, until…well, let’s leave that one there. You see my point.

The Daily Mail opens its article with a portrayal clearly designed to elicit sympathy – Maguire ‘leads by example’, ‘commands the respect of his team-mates’, the allegation is ‘out of character’. Later on they say he is the ‘antithesis of a hot head’ and we hear details of his charity work. They even discuss his disciplinary record on the pitch. What is the point of all this?

Sterling has done plenty of charitable work. He has a good disciplinary record too, yet do we think the media would include such a frankly irrelevant scrap of information in an article where the forward had been accused of assaulting a police officer? We all know the answer to that one.

Instead, I can guarantee we’d have been regaled with every instance where Sterling clashed with a player on the pitch – the Joe Gomez saga would undoubtedly have got a mention, all in order to build up an image of a person prone to aggression and lashing out.

It’s worth noting, after that Gomez incident, the Guardian wrote that Sterling ‘should have known better and behaved better’. A perfectly valid point – yet, Maguire has been accused of assaulting a police offer, and I’ve not seen anything close to a condemnation of what he may have done.

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This bizarre framing is obviously intended to exonerate Maguire and leave the reader under no illusions that what has happened is an aberration. It’s a one-off, and we should go for a pint at the Winchester and wait for it all to blow over.

It’s also interesting that the Guardian mention, without elaboration, that the Greek island Mykonos where the incident occurred is ‘braced for tighter social restrictions due to a spike in coronavirus cases’. This is the intelligent bloke we’re told about, holidaying on an island with a high infection rate.

Not that I’m personally bothered, but we all know Sterling would hardly have escaped censure for this. Sterling’s trips to Greggs and Primark were treated with bewilderment by the press in normal times, so they’d have been rubbing their hands with glee if this was him – “IDIOT STERLING HOLIDAYS IN VIRUS HOTSPOT DAYS AFTER MISSING OPEN NET”

However, it’s the feigned ignorance that is the masterpiece of the Guardian piece. ‘What on earth happened to lead a Greek police official to say that Maguire had been “verbally abusive to an officer and then hit him”’, it asks. Well, I’m not Sherlock Holmes, but I can hazard a guess that what happened went a little something like this: Maguire was verbally abusive to an officer, and then he hit him.

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I can only assume the Guardian is trying to suggest that there simply must have been some kind of provocation that would exonerate Maguire. Again, the issue is less that this is how they are treating the allegation, and more the contrast with prior media treatment of Sterling for far more innocuous and mundane matters.

In a similar vein, the Guardian is at pains to tell the reader that Maguire ‘is not flashy, not obsessed with celebrity and being seen’. We even get treated to a heart-warming backstory to tell us how the defender ‘is loyal to the pals with whom he grew up’. Maguire should use that one in court. ‘Listen, your honour, I may have got into a little brawl with a few police officers, but look, I’m not flashy! I still acknowledge the existence of people I grew up with! Let me go, please’.

Contrast this with how the Daily Mail chose to vilify the City winger for buying his mum a house: ‘That’s a lot of Sterling! £180,000-a-week England flop Raheem shows off blinging house he bought for his mum – complete with jewel-encrusted bathroom – hours after flying home in disgrace from Euro 2016’. 

The headline wants to depict Sterling as being ostentatious. You see, the house he has bought is not just a normal house. No, it is a ‘blinging’ house – a word, of course, that seems to forever surround a Black person when they have the audacity to show off their wealth. The inference being, they should know their place, their wealth is unnatural.

The custom is, if you didn’t know, that proper English gentlemen inherit their wealth from histories of colonialism, imperialism and exploitation. How dare Sterling earn it through hard work and talent.

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Maguire’s arrest came after United lost in the Europa League semi-final, but is this fact deemed relevant to the media? No, and rightly so. Yet, when Sterling bought his mum a house, it was entirely appropriate to mention that this came after the youngster flew home ‘in disgrace from Euro 2016’ after England’s ‘embarrassing loss’. The winger, they say, ‘did not stay dejected and downbeat for very long’.

This sentence merits scrutiny. The language is insidious, and most people would skim over it as an innocuous point. But it’s clearly designed to hint at Sterling’s lack of loyalty and attachment to the England shirt. Look how quickly he got over the humiliating defeat. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that such language is linked to the colour of Sterling’s skin and his Jamaican heritage. I never saw any similar accusations against other England players when they get on with their lives after Euro 2016.

The Mail wants to depict Sterling as flashy. It references his ‘fleet of supercars’ – which I assume the majority of footballers possess – and the fact he flew home with the England squad on a private jet. The jet has nothing to do with Sterling, but it’s included there for the reader. The house itself is ‘extravagant’ and features ‘a vulgar glittering jewel-encrusted sink’. Why is it vulgar? I bet most Mail columnists worship wealth. No, I wonder if it’s not the jewels that they find vulgar, but who owns them – a Black man. And he’s working-class! The ultimate sin.

The ultimate irony is the article cites a source close to Sterling that alleges the player is ‘really upset that the fact he’s bought a nice house for his mum is being used to hammer him by the media’. The lack of self-awareness is laughable. Boy, I’d sure hate to be that media attacking a young lad for buying his mum a house, using headlines like ‘blinging’ and ‘after flying home in disgrace’ – who could do such a horrible thing, the Mail ponders. 

We can also see that this issue extends beyond an irrational obsession with Sterling. As the winger pointed out on his now famous Instagram post, we also saw how the Daily Mail treated two young English City players buying a house. When Phil Foden bought a £2m home, the only context they thought was needed was that the house was for his mum – how sweet of him.

When Tosin Adarabioyo bought a similarly priced home, further context was needed in the headline. He bought it ‘despite having never started a Premier League match’ – note, neither had Foden at the time of his headline. What else was different? Foden ‘buys’ the home – a neutral term. Adarabioyo? He ‘splashes out’ – a term with connotations of profligacy.

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Foden’s wage was unmentioned in the headline. Tosin’s? He earns £25,000 a week, we’re informed, just as the Mail also felt Sterling’s £180,000 wage was relevant in its headline when he bought a house. I’d guess that the intent was to rile their audience up into a state of frenzy and indignation at how unfair it all is. Look at how much he earns, it’s obscene! Splashing out on a home when he’s not even played a game!

If they want to go down that route, fine – but why does it only seem to apply when it’s a Black footballer?

Honestly, someone could write a whole book on the Mail headlines alone – there’s so much to unpack, but at the heart of it is the different tone that is conveyed when a player is white and when a player is black.

I’d like to be able to stop now, but there’s mountains of this stuff out there. Previous articles have included an unhealthy obsession on how a Black athlete spends his income. One headline read ‘Sterling picks up bargains at Primark…despite his £180k-a-week wages’. This truly is damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If he uses his wealth, he is ‘blingy’ or ‘vulgar’. If he shops prudently, he still merits a headline querying his actions.

Meanwhile, the Daily Star ran with an article after Sterling treated himself to a Greggs. This is a fun game, see if you can guess the sub-headline. Maybe something light-hearted about what pasty he bought – a sausage roll, perchance? Steak bake? Erm, no. Don’t be silly. The sub-headline is, obviously, ‘Footballer Raheem Sterling has just paid £3.1million for a house but still eats at Greggs’. Because every time someone eats, it is important context to know how much they spent on their home, and to pass moral judgement accordingly.

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The article leaps into a description of his house and its expensive features, because this is useful context, apparently. It also sees fit to mention how neighbours had complained to council planners about how the house ‘was out of keeping with its rural surroundings’. Hmmmmmmm. I’ll leave you to make your own minds up on the cause of the complaint. 

When Sterling proposed to his girlfriend, the Sun headline was ‘Love rat Raheem Sterling proposes to long-suffering girlfriend Paige Milian’. When John Stones split up from his partner after being accused of cheating, I dread to think what he was called on that basis. Oh, an ‘England star’ in the Mail’s headline. 

In 2016, the Sun also ran a profile of the forward titled ‘The life of footie idiot Raheem Sterling’. I can think of plenty of English internationals over the years who hardly come over as intellectual powerhouses, but I’ve never seen one labelled as an ‘idiot’ in a profile headline apropos of nothing.

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Thankfully, I feel the climate right now is favourable to calling out such racism. There have been plenty of people who have spotted the disparity in treatment between a white England international and a black England international. 

I noticed countless tweets drawing attention to the indefensible and ludicrous contrast between how Maguire has been depicted in light of his arrest for assault and Sterling’s in light of his…well, existing as a Black man. A few years ago, it seemed there was a lot more resistance when fans wanted to highlight how race played a significant role in Sterling’s treatment by the media.

Unfortunately, however, I know that there will still be some reading this who completely miss the point. They’ll probably think the rest of us are a bunch of snowflakes for being offended at such trivial things like racism. The difference in the media’s treatment of Maguire, Foden, Stones etc. and Sterling, Adarabioyo etc. has nothing to do with race, they’ll say. I’d hope that the excerpts cited above would be enough to disabuse those of such a notion.

The treatment of Sterling will forever be a stain on the history of the English media. And it’s our role as fans to never forget it, and to continue to hold the press to account until it starts to treat players the same regardless of skin colour.

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(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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