‘Bad old days’ as racism returns to football

Negative: Sterling says media criticism of him is “one million percent” race-related. © Getty

In a hard-hitting interview with the New York Times, England star Raheem Sterling argues that the media is fuelling hatred against black players. What can be done to stamp it out?

More than 20 years after the Kick It Out campaign was created to fight racism in football it is on the rise once more.

According to Kick It Out figures, racial abuse at matches increased by 11% last year compared to the previous season. It was the sixth year running that the number of reported incidents has climbed.

One footballer at the centre of the storm is Raheem Sterling. Aged 24, the Manchester City striker already has a Premier League title and helped take England to a World Cup semi-final. He has also been subjected to vile racist abuse.

In December, a Chelsea fan was investigated by police for shouting a racial slur at Sterling. Just 10 days later, Arsenal footballer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana thrown at him during a game against Tottenham.

“The bad old days are back!” declared former footballer Ian Wright.

Black players faced widespread abuse in the 1970s and 80s.

When Cyrille Regis became one of the first black players to play for England in 1982, he was sent hate mail containing a bullet and threats. His contemporary John Barnes has spoken out about being pelted with banana skins at matches.

On the surface, things look much better. Gareth Southgate’s hugely popular young squad at the Russia World Cup was England’s most diverse ever.

But for Sterling, newspaper articles about black players “help fuel racism and aggressive behaviour”.

Since the very start of his career, Sterling argues that he has been portrayed as “a flashy kid from London: loves cars, loves the flashy lifestyle”.

“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,” he says.

According to John Barnes, racism is a problem across all of society, not just in football.

“We cannot compartmentalise,” he told BBC Breakfast in December. “We have to change the perception of the average black man in the street.”

Zero tolerance

Is football racist? Or are incidents just better reported now due to wider awareness? Can racism ever be completely eliminated from football when it is perpetrated by nasty individuals? Despite ongoing racist incidents, English football is more diverse than ever. Is it possible that racism would be worse without football?

Is the problem much wider than just in sport? Barnes argues that it is futile to focus on football rather than tackle ingrained racism across society. Who is responsible? The media? The government? “We all are,” says Barnes. How do you change that?

You Decide

  1. Is British society racist?
  2. Does the media encourage racism?


  1. What can be done across society to tackle racism? Come up with three points of your own and then discuss the question as a class.
  2. Research a black British footballer who was playing before 2000. Make a poster profile about their life and achievements.

Some People Say...

“Racism is as British as a cup of tea.”

Kehinde Andrews

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
England and Manchester City football player Raheem Sterling last week told the New York Times that the media is encouraging racism against football players by portraying black players in a negative light. The interview comes two months after Sterling first spoke out against racism after he received racist abuse while playing at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.
What do we not know?
Whether racism in football is getting worse, or whether we have just become more aware of the problem. “Today’s racism is nowhere near the level of the 1980s, and it’s extraordinary that it still clings to this sport given it is so diverse… But in football there seems to be a preservation of a racist tradition,” says expert Professor Ellis Cashmore.

Word Watch

A total of 520 reports, up from 469 in 2016-17. Some of the rise may be attributed to more thorough reporting of racist incidents, thanks to rising awareness and ease of reporting on social media.
Cyrille Regis
An English striker who died in January last year, aged 59. He was best known for playing for West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City.
John Barnes
In 1988, he was famously photographed kicking a banana off the pitch that had been thrown at him. He played for Liverpool at the time.
Most diverse ever
Eleven of the 23 players were black or of mixed ethnicity, compared to six England players at the previous World Cup.
Newspaper articles
In an Instagram post in December, Sterling compared an article about his black teammate Tosin Adarabioyo buying a house, which read “splashes out on mansion”, with an article about white player Phil Foden which he says was more sympathetic, reading “buys new £2m home for his mum”.


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