Racism in football: what has media coverage got to do with it?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Racism in football: what has media coverage got to do with it?
Raheem Sterling

Has there ever been a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nation? (AFCON)”. That is the question raised by former England and Arsenal player Ian Wright in a video published at the end of December on his social media platform.

In his video, Wright points out the general media coverage “tinged with racism” surrounding the competition. Indeed, questions from journalists suggesting that African players should choose between their club and their country or the reluctance of some European clubs to let players leave for the AFCON reveal latent and common sense racialised mindsets in sporting representations.

Despite being arguably one of the most popular and ethnically diverse sports in the world, football is not immune to racism. This racism is easily reported by players, clubs or the media when it comes to overt behaviour such as name-calling, racial slurs or noise in the stadium, as was recently the case at Club Brugge – Anderlecht. But the daily micro-aggressions and deeply rooted institutional racism that accounts for the lack of coaches of African origin in Europe’s major leagues, the lack of leading non-white referees in Europe, or the lack of people from ethnic minorities in senior positions in national and international football associations, are barely addressed.

This more widespread racism is also at play when we see an over-representation of ethnic minority coaches in amateur football in Europe, a stagnation of ethnic minority referees at local level or or an under-representation of minority media professionals, but also a hyper-visibility of (former) non-white footballers as commentators.

Regarding covert racism in football, the impact of racially coded media coverage and media dynamics needs to be examined more closely in Western Europe. As Dutch football and media expert Professor Jacco van Sterkenburg mentions, “due to their popularity and accessibility, sports media play an important role in expressing meanings about race and ethnicity.”

Media representation and stereotypes

Over the past few decades, the media representation of racially and ethnically diverse athletes in elite male sport has been widely documented in the United States and the United Kingdom. A common finding has been the use of stereotypical language. Journalists and commentators tend to praise white players for their ‘intellect’ and ‘leadership ability’, while black players are praised for their more physical and ‘natural’ abilities such as speed and strength.

Although some studies suggest a decrease in the use of the ‘black athlete metaphor’, the pressure of live reporting and the need to bring in news quickly encourages the use and ultimately the acceptance of this racially charged discourse. In fact, audience reception studies show that, in most cases, media consumers rely on the hegemonic (racialised) discourse when discussing the abilities of black and white athletes. Furthermore, minority players and Africa, as evidenced by news headlines about the AFCON, face a racial double standard in Western reporting.

The British media’s coverage of England’s Raheem Sterling is a shining example. In recent years, Sterling has been labelled ‘greedy’ for wanting a pay rise, or even ‘obscene’ for posting a photo of the house he bought for his mother. While at the same time, his white teammates receive less criticism or even praise for similar behaviour. With AFCON, we also see the differences in commentary along racial lines. As the French-Algerian writer Mabrouck Rachedi says, ‘To err is human, except in Africa, where it belongs to all Africans’. Indeed, mistakes made in the organisation of this competition or occurring during the matches are used to reveal a typically African mentality and culture. Whereas similar events in European countries are analysed at the individual level without questioning the capacities and abilities of an entire continent.

These stereotypical and one-dimensional framings of racial and ethnic groups reflect the lack of diversity within the media. Most (Western) sports commentators and mainstream media executives are white men, so the discourses they use intentionally or subconsciously perpetuate inaccurate and racist narratives of minorities. Besides, white sports commentators often tend to describe the sports media as colour-blind and race-neutral institutions, where journalists report the facts objectively and in an unbiased and neutral manner.

Therefore, the media, as vehicles of cultural transmission, bear a huge responsibility for the way in which sports actors and events are perceived. Certain visual and narrative representations, by transmitting ideas about race and ethnicity, reproduce, normalise and naturalise (neo)colonialist discourse. Therefore, it is crucial that these institutions engage in self-reflexivity, in addition to actions, to identify how they can address their institutionalised racism.

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