Shane Thomas discusses how men’s football in England has found itself in a state of change as more talented black players find success

One of my favourite Yasin Bey songs is Mr. Nigga, which provides such piercing observations as:

“They say they want you successful, but then they make it stressful/You start keeping pace, they start changing up the tempo.”

The ongoing trials of Raheem Sterling by Britain’s media may have reached critical mass with the affected conniption from his latest tattoo. There’s twin ironies here: His livelihood being threatened when he’s the only person involved in this frenzy who shouldn’t have that concern; and his tattoo being of a gun, as one imagines an image of crosshairs would be more fitting right now (it also makes it curious that there hasn’t been a public relitigation of his connection with a domestic violence case in 2013, of which he was acquitted).

Ignore the, “But is it actually racist?” question, as to ask it entertains the notion anti-blackness begins and ends with the n-word. Even ignore the, “He’s actually quite a nice guy” exculpations from the established press, as that would entertain the notion that racism can be a suitable tariff for unpleasantness.

The negative stories around Sterling aren’t actually coming from the sports sections of Britain’s media outlets. Instead it’s the news divisions that have treated him like a piñata. But there’s a question their editors have to ask themselves. One that may cause them tremors of anxiety.

What if Sterling has a really good World Cup? What if England outperform expectations and Sterling is the key reason why? How will the media cover him then? And why is he always the target to begin with? Sterling isn’t the lone black face in the England men’s team, yet players like Kyle Walker, Jesse Lingard, and Danny Rose have avoided similar scrutiny.

Something Hannah Black once said gives us some insight: “The conceptual incoherence of race is advantageous to white supremacy, as the benefits of whiteness can be extended or retracted pretty much expediently.” So while Sterling’s plight doesn’t indicate a desire for a white-only England squad (after all, this isn’t the 1990’s) he appears to be the avatar for a panic surrounding potential changes young black men could bring to the team, and by extension, the country.

This dread was illustrated by an Instagram photo of England’s under-16 team. Due to the number of black players in the side, it received derisive comments such as, “Looks more like Nigeria”, and, “Is this England or Senegal?”

In a totally unrelated note, here’s some of the names who wore the England shirt in their final game at the Under-17 European Championships this year: Vontae Daley-Campbell; Ajibola Alese; Nathaniel Ogbeta; Bukayo Saka; Arvin Appiah; Faustino Anjorin; Tyreece John-Jules; Folarin Balogun. These are the Three Lions of the future. Having such a preponderance of black players isn’t anti-racism, but one thing’s for sure. This is England.

“If white boys doing it, well, it’s success/When I start doing it, well, it’s suspect.”

This new generation of footballers – not just the black ones – are part of a social milieu where grime is now among Britain’s most popular cultural expressions. There has long been a link between football and music, but often the music has been indie-based, populated by white faces. It’s not that black people haven’t liked the sport, but some of those who do are now famous.

You know things are changing when you can see a video with Dele Alli and Wretch 32, or Danny Welbeck and Big Shaq. Even the work done by Vuj and Poet on Fifa and Chill shows a different way to consume the sport than we’ve seen in the past. In simple terms, it’s football through the eyes of the mandem.

English football is currently in flux as the sport has always been assumed to be a white cultural product. It’s willing to allow other ethnicities to take part, but its leaders – as with every industry – are often white people. This goes from executive positions, to management, sometimes as far as on-field captains.

We must also consider the factors of culture and age in this situation. Why the Windrush Generation received such sympathy when they had their rights stripped from them was in part due to how they are seen in the public consciousness: some fought for Britain in wars; they were often besuited; well-spoken (being mainly from the Caribbean’s affluent class); tolerating racism with quiet stoicism rather than voluble complaint.

Isn’t this how Britain likes their migrants? Compliant and productive? Even though it’s ahistorical to view the Windrush Generation in this way, it matters how our current moment frames them – as a dignified template for modern black people to copy.

Sterling has become the unwitting symbol of a generation who have ostensibly rejected the lessons of their ancestors. Their attire, their music, their deportment. Too loud, too uncouth, too disruptive. Add in the ubiquitous association of blackness with disrespectability, and we see where the dog whistles – based on little material evidence – come from.

The racist attack he suffered only seven months ago doesn’t fit the narrative, as the purpose of this media circus has never been to demean Sterling the footballer, but to impugn his very being, as a social corrective. This has echoes of the coverage around Serena Williams, Paul Pogba, or Allen Iverson. Think of them as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady; while the media are Henry Higgins, with the castigation only ceasing once they’ve changed who these athletes are.

“And even if they’ve never said it, lips stay sealed/They actions reveal how their hearts really feel.”

The Establishment observed, “So many of our media companies are going where the money is, and the money isn’t in real news – it’s in confirmation: Confirmation of your worst fears, of your bigotries, of your animosities, of your unequivocal rightness.” You may lament the wider public being conned about who black people are, but you have to also acknowledge that many don’t require much convincing to begin with. The skill comes from being opaque, but clear enough where you can trust your readership to fill in the blanks.

Trying to appease the powerful is taking cash from a loan shark, who proceeds to increase the interest just when you’ve gathered together enough money to pay them back. Being born black – or as any oppressed group – brings with it a debt that can never be adequately repaid, but best believe that they’ll come for you if you’re not trying to requite it.

There will be no media mea culpa if Sterling ends up as the World Cup’s star man. Just a tentative embrace of him, with caveats. When Nadiya Hussain made her name on The Great British Bake-Off, the initial Islamophobic coverage she received only eased after she attained victory on the show. Britain has often been something of a magpie nation, “embracing and owning genius, no matter where it stems from.” Much like racism itself, the press can adapt to changing circumstances.

As for the inevitable complaints I’ll get for making race an issue here; consider how something is often an issue when it’s divergent from what’s seen as normal. Sterling being painted as someone worthy of censure? It seems normal. It seems ordinary. It seems right. But to perceive him as an English sporting hero? Does this country really know what to do with that?

“I’ma cop a nice home to provide in/A safe environment for seeds to reside in/A fresh whip for my whole family to ride in/And if I’m still Mr. Nigga, I won’t find it surprising.”

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Shane Thomas can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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