Chris Waters: Raheem Sterling issue is tip of the iceberg '“ abuse in football needs kicking out for good

THE abuse suffered by Manchester City's Raheem Sterling during the match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge the other day is the tip of an iceberg that permeates football at every level.

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling accused newspapers of helping to fuel racism with the way in which they portray young black footballers. (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling accused newspapers of helping to fuel racism with the way in which they portray young black footballers. (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

Granted, the use of racist language may be rare nowadays; I am old enough to remember the days of monkey chanting on the terraces and the casual brandishing of plastic bananas whenever a black player had the temerity to touch the ball.

But the abuse of players per se is systematic and widespread, stretching from the Premier League down to the grass-roots game.

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I know this because I witnessed it for myself only the other week while watching Lincoln City play Cambridge United in a League Two fixture at Sincil Bank.

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

As an avid supporter of Lincoln, the city where I grew up, I make no attempt to single out a club that are as friendly and welcoming as any in the country.

In truth, I could be talking about any football club or any football ground; I just so happen to follow the Imps.

What I saw on that occasion was exactly the sort of images that we saw at Stamford Bridge: namely, a group of supporters, their faces filled with hate, spewing out a torrent of foul and abusive language (not racist language), in this case at a Cambridge player who, only a few feet away, was preparing to take a correctly awarded corner kick.

“Cheat… F****** cheat… You f****** cheating ****” were just a few of the pleasantries aimed in his direction, pleasantries that he ignored with admirable professionalism and which were amplified by the fact that this section of the ground was far from full.

As I watched this sad episode unfold in front of me, with others joining in the abuse or grinning at the tirade, I was struck by the apparent (to them) normality of it all.

These people, ostensibly respectable in outward appearance, although clearly not blessed with an abundance of grey matter, quite clearly considered it to be their absolute right to abuse the visiting player if they so wished, as if their match ticket gave them this right.

No sooner had the corner kick been taken, in fact, than the abusers went, in the blink of an eye, from hate and fury to laughter all round, emphasising the exaggerated nature of their anger in the first place, and they had no sense whatsoever of the offence they had caused to some people around them, including women and children.

The lack of self-awareness was so stunning, in fact, that I am absolutely certain that had they been challenged over their conduct they would have been unable to grasp that they had done anything wrong, as if they had been stopped for driving at 27mph in a 30mph zone – ie under the speed limit.

This, alas, is the reality of football in England today.

This is the norm. This is how it is.

This is the extent to which verbal abuse is widespread and accepted.

As one national newspaper observed, how many would have batted an eyelid – particularly on Twitter, where the vile Sterling video swiftly went viral – had Sterling been called a “f****** Manc ****” as opposed to the alleged insult of a “f****** black ****”?

In other words, abuse is fine – just do not bring race into it.

However, abuse of all kinds needs to be addressed.

Granted, it is not easy; football mirrors society and, as you may have noticed, society tends to stink.

But Kick It Out needs to start applying to all kinds of abuse – not just racist and discriminatory types.

It cannot be right that conduct that would result in people being arrested were it repeated in a high street shop, for example, is blithely tolerated inside a football ground, where it feels as if it is protected like the sporting equivalent of parliamentary privilege.

In the aftermath of Stamford Bridge Sterling claimed that the media helps “fuel racism”, highlighting a national newspaper article about a young black footballer who had bought a £2.25m house despite never having started a Premier League game, whereas a white player was ostensibly praised for 
buying a new £2m home for his mother.

Such portrayals are undoubtedly clumsy and Sterling’s words brought widespread agreement, but I think that Society of Editors director Ian Murray got it right when he said: “I don’t believe that there’s a single journalist on a national newspaper, or working anywhere in the mainstream media in this country, who actually sets out to be racist or to incite racial hatred in that kind of way.”

Murray added: “I think Raheem Sterling has a point when he showed the comparisons about the way he and some other black players are portrayed”.

There is food for thought for the media, for sure, but it is also incumbent on players to help root out the systematic abuse that we hear at football matches.

Is it any coincidence, for example, that players very publicly argue with, and swear at, referees all the time to the extent that this, too, has become the norm?

Yet if fans see their heroes behaving in that way it is all the encouragement they need to unleash the sort of invective that means that a Cambridge United player cannot go about the task of taking a simple corner kick without being subjected to senseless abuse.

Football’s culture needs to change – on the pitch and off it.