In the days of back-and-forth screaming (disguised as debate) matches and hot takes, it’s not very often you come across an actual intelligent discussion on a sports (or news, for that matter) channel. It’s all about who can scream their point the loudest and that point doesn’t even have to make sense for it to go viral.

So when two people in the sports world actually have an intelligent conversation with an important point attached, it’s a big deal. That happened Sunday morning before NBCSN’s Premier League coverage. After multiple incidents regarding racist fans and accusations of a double standard between how English tabloids treat black soccer players compared to white players, host Rebecca Lowe and analyst Robbie Earle went in-depth to discuss racism in soccer, and in particular, English soccer.

To accurately put this discussion within context, there have been multiple incidents over the past couple of weeks regarding fans racially abusing black soccer players. Last week, a Tottenham fan threw a banana peel at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the North London Derby. That fan was arrested and has been banned by Tottenham. This week, two fans in Scotland were arrested after video showed them racially abusing Motherwell substitute Christian Mbulu and in England, the world feed broadcast showed a Chelsea fan yelling things at Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling that, if you know how to read lips, appeared to be racially motivated.

Sterling has been a target for fans and the media over the years. A part of that is fair; Sterling is one of the best players on one of the best teams in the world. Obviously, away fans aren’t going to like that player and are going to do all they can to psych them out and give their side an advantage. While doing that is okay in theory, and it’s even encouraged for fans to make it tough on the away team, it sadly sometimes crosses a line and leads to racially motivated remarks, which is never okay. Sterling rarely publicly acknowledges the abuse he faces but he posted on Instagram Sunday morning showing screenshots of two articles from English tabloid the Daily Mail.

 

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Good morning I just want to say , I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better. For example you have two young players starting out there careers both play for the same team, both have done the right thing. Which is buy a new house for there mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are, but look how the news papers get there message across for the young black player and then for the young white payer. I think this in unacceptable both innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour, so for all the news papers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all i have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an give all players an equal chance.

A post shared by Raheem Sterling x 😇 (@sterling7) on

The two players, Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden, are players who came up through Manchester City’s academy system. While Adarbioyo is currently on loan with West Brom, both players are with Manchester City, both players are relatively the same age, and both players are English. The main difference is Adarabioyo is black and Foden is white, and Sterling posted headlines of the two articles that are similar in nature –  both bought new houses for their respective mothers. The headlines the Daily Mail chooses to use paints Adarabioyo as an irresponsible kid for buying such an expensive house and Foden portrayed as the perfect son for doing such a noble gesture.

Robbie Earle, who like Sterling is Jamaican and English, was born and grew up in England most of his life. Earle played in England all his career, playing from 1982 to 2000. Back then, racially abusing a player in England was way more common, way more open, and administrators usually didn’t bother to do a thing about it, at least until the Kick It Out initiative was formed in the 90s. So in that instance, things have improved. But when discussing this with Lowe, Earle pointed out that this racist behavior is in danger of coming back, that English soccer has “gone backwards” when it comes to handling racism. And while you can tell it’s not the kind of discussion he would like to have on a Sunday morning, it’s important to still have this discussion no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Sterling didn’t put the focus on himself in his Instagram post, but he has been the target of similar stories in the English media, primarily from the tabloids over the years. Usually, a headline consists of pointing out how much Sterling makes per week (the fact that his last name is also a name for the British pound makes for an easy pun), and then the thing he did. No matter what, Sterling can’t win with the media because the tabloids can needle him in a story about him showing off his house on Instagram or taking a flight on a budget airline. Or maybe it’s about driving a dirty £50k Mercedes (making sure the price of the car is in the headline) or going out for breakfast the morning after missing out on an award. Just look at this post from offtheball.com that summarizes a lot of headlines from the tabloids about Sterling.

Obviously, we’ll never know how those articles would have been written if Sterling was white, so people like Piers Morgan, someone who only has a career due to working in the tabloids as editor for the Daily Mirror when they hacked the phones of athletes, celebrities, and members of the royal family for their content, will use that opportunity to try and defend how Sterling’s post was wrong and that the differences between the Adarabioyo and Foden stories aren’t actually racist in nature.

Look at former Stoke City and Reading striker Dave Kitson, who said on talkSPORT he believes that “players make themselves a target” and tells them to “be a little bit careful on social media and the way [players] portray ourselves” because people can be jealous. Kitson points out that no matter what, it’s no excuse for someone to be subjected to racial abuse so in that aspect he’s better than Morgan. But Kitson still puts the blame on the player and is trying to say that *Sterling* did something wrong rather than the actual people who are saying racist things to him.

That kind of victim-blaming happens too often and it happens in many other situations. Just look at how people react when someone is accused of sexual assault or being physically abused. It’s people like Morgan and Kitson, among others, who Sterling refers to as those in the media who fuel racism and gives racists the power to say those vile things because people like Morgan and Kitson either ignore the problem outright or blame the players for bringing it upon themselves.

While NBC deserves credit for this thoughtful discussion between Lowe and Earle, an argument can be made that NBC as a whole is a part of the problem that Sterling describes. NBC employs Neil Ashton as their “Premier League insider,” and he reports the latest news and rumors from the British papers, including those same tabloids who have played roles in Sterling’s assessment that the media fuels racism. Ashton himself is chief football reporter for The Sun, a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. While willingly participating in spreading lies on multiple occasions, some of The Sun‘s most egregious lies took place in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, which blamed Liverpool fans for crushing 96 of their fellow fans to death and said that fans were so violent that they prevented police from helping the injured and the dead.

As a result, it took victims’ families 23 years to prove that Liverpool fans weren’t at fault and in fact were actually helping the injured while police were negligent and instead were trying to keep people contained within the stands, thus crushing even more people. Video showed that fans weren’t at fault and for years, many people believed fans weren’t at fault, but The Sun persisted in claiming they were right. Because of that, The Sun is barely sold in Liverpool, with fans of both Liverpool and rival Everton participating in a “Don’t Buy The Sun” boycott, which has remained in place after nearly 30 years. In addition, fans from 70 teams recently signed pledges to boycott the tabloid and tried to get local retailers to stop selling the paper due to their Hillsborough coverage. After the 2012 verdict, The Sun apologized for what they did, but after 23 years, the damage was already done and the apology rang hollow among many.

Ashton himself hasn’t participated in some of the more tabloid fueled rumors The Sun perpetuates, and he wasn’t around during Hillsborough. But the mere fact he’s affiliated with The Sun, especially in such a high position as chief football reporter, has made some viewers angry at NBC for employing him. As a person, as far as I know, Ashton himself is not racist and seems like a very understanding individual and journalist. But at the same time, if I hung around and worked for a company with The Sun‘s reputation, I can’t be surprised if my own reputation is damaged because of the The Sun‘s reputation as a tabloid. As the saying goes, “You are the company you keep.”

While NBC has no connection with The Sun other than Ashton’s participation with both companies (and it should be noted that NBC hired Ashton while he was with the Daily Mail), some fans (calling themselves Sunset NBC) who are aware of The Sun‘s long-term impact pertaining to Hillsborough have criticized NBC for keeping Ashton on their broadcasts and allowing him to provide a platform for not only The Sun but for other tabloids that Sterling, and to an extent Earle, are being critical about for fueling racism. By showcasing those tabloids on a broadcast that is largely respected by so many in sports, as well as within soccer, viewers in the United States who don’t know any better could interpret English newspapers like The Sun and the Daily Mail as legitimate news outlets instead of tabloids with varying levels of accuracy.

This isn’t to discredit Robbie Earle’s sincere and intelligent remarks about racism within English soccer and the media’s role in that. But it is a situation where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and Earle’s bosses at NBC need to seriously take a look in the mirror and figure out if employing someone from The Sun to be a part of their Premier League coverage means that NBC themselves may be participating in the very problem that Raheem Sterling is talking about and undermining their own on-air talent.

Maybe we as a society have been naive about race. Maybe I have been naive. I’m a white male, and for some people reading this, it may have been inappropriate for me to write this because I am white and no matter what, I’ll never know what it’s like to be racially abused. I won’t know what it’s like to be called the “n-word” and to personally feel the horribleness of what that word means and represents to a black person. I won’t know what it’s like to be subjected to the kinds of things black people and other minorities face for doing simple things that I myself may take for granted. And despite what some people have called me when I was growing up or for the things I write about or for my opinions, it’ll never compare to the kind of hurtful language and situations minorities and women receive on a daily basis. The best I can do is understand and be aware what may be considered fair criticism and what may be criticism that’s coming from a hateful place and to point that out as best I can. I’d rather be someone who at least tries to understand and cares than be someone so callous like Piers Morgan who won’t even bother to try and imagining walking a mile in someone’s shoes.

Robbie Earle said that he failed Raheem Sterling because no matter what he did, racism is still within English soccer and I honestly don’t think that’s the case. It was people like Robbie Earle who stood up first to get people within English soccer to start talking and get us to this point. No matter what, there will always be a closed minded individual who will think it’s a good idea to shout racial slurs or throw a banana peel on the field. It’s sad, but that’s reality.

That doesn’t mean we as a society should throw our hands in the air and give up just because it’ll never be perfect. We should learn a lesson from this. While things have improved in English soccer, there is still a long way to go when it comes to eradicating racism in soccer, and in society as a whole. We may have been lulled into a false sense of security that everything was fine racially. Let this be the wake up call that makes us all get serious that racism is a problem, that we need to get racism out of here once and for all, and to never forget that racism can always come back if we’re not careful.

About Phillip Bupp

News and soccer editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. I also do video highlight game coverage for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

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