Raheem Sterling: What's really behind the intense criticism of England's young star?
MOSCOW - Among the many recurrent storylines about English soccer -- great domestic league, can't win the big international game, always chokes in a penalty shootout -- there is one that, to an outsider, seems especially curious.
The one about Raheem Sterling.
The gist of it goes something like this: Sterling, who is England's 23-year-old star winger, is often portrayed as contentious, divisive and one of the most polarizing figures in English soccer.
So, then, let's start here: Is Sterling actually polarizing?
Certainly he has inspired a variety of news media coverage in a fairly short time, ranging from fawning tributes (The Telegraph called him a "teen sensation" as early as 2011) to the familiar, and frankly unreasonable, expectations of loyalty often imposed on athletes when they deign to try and make more money ("Raheem Sterling turning his back on Liverpool"). There has also been plenty of coverage of his off-field activities, most of which falls somewhere between reasonable and hysterical ("Baloony" was one headline after a video emerged of him inhaling nitrous oxide in 2015).
It is not clear that any of this makes Sterling polarizing (only, rather, that it makes him fairly famous). Polarizing figures, especially in sports, generally have to actively do something or be something divisive to become a lightning rod, and usually that something is, in itself, divisive.
For example, Alex Rodriguez, the former baseball star, was polarizing because he was frequently arrogant and seemed to defy many of the team-first tendencies of professional sports. That remarkable cockiness, combined with his actual prowess, allowed A-Rod to put forth a persona that some found endearing, if not aspirational, while others saw as epically boorish. Then A-Rod became even more polarizing because he was caught using performance-enhancing drugs, a reality that pitted those who thought him a cheater against those who believed he had made a mistake.
But bad behavior is not the only way to be polarizing. Tim Tebow, who aggressively highlighted his devout Christianity (even in the middle of football games), and Colin Kaepernick, who chose to use the pregame playing of the national anthem as a vehicle to make a statement about police brutality and social justice, are among the most divisive figures in American sports history, and they became that because of beliefs they purposely sought to share.
It was their actions that caused it.
In Sterling's case, the perpetual debate around him feels to be just that -- around him -- and does not seem to be something in which he is actually participating. Sterling does not make political statements, does not advocate for anything controversial (or anything in particular, really), does not do anything unusual to push a self-promoting agenda.
In a recent first-person essay that was published on The Players' Tribune, he told a fairly benign -- and, if we're being honest, not altogether unusual story for a professional athlete -- of growing up poor, helping his mother and family get by and ultimately parlaying his athletic skill into a better life. "England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream," he wrote.
So what, then, prompts the intense reactions to Sterling? Why are there headlines criticizing him for buying a luxurious house? (The house was actually for his mother.) Why was the tattoo of a gun on his leg a national story? (He explained he got it to remember his father, who was murdered by a gun when Sterling was a toddler.) Why does everything connected to Sterling seem to morph into a referendum on him as a player or person?
One theory is that race is a factor. But that notion doesn't fully track, as Sterling, like all minorities, faces racism to vary degrees all the time (he was even attacked by a fan once who was shouting racial epithets) but has not been limited, professionally, because of it. And Marcus Rashford, who is also young, black and a teammate of Sterling's with England, does not inspire anywhere near the same reactions.
"I don't think it's because he's black," John Barnes, the former Liverpool legend, told ESPN. "I think it has to do with the perception of his character."
Barnes, who like Sterling was born in Jamaica, raised his voice. "Notice I said 'perception of his character,'" he said. "Not his character. But the perception of it. And the perception of what 'black' is or should be."
Barnes said he believes it is a murky social issue that lies behind the Sterling reception, and Maurice Mcleod, an author and social commentator who has written often about soccer and culture, said he sees England's long-held obsession with class structure as the true root.
"In Britain, you're born into what you're born into," Mcleod said. "You can socially move, of course, but there's always a sense that some people aren't allowed in the club. And, if we let you in, you need to behave in a particular way."
He continued, "There's a narrative that those who rise up need to do it respectfully and they need to be grateful for what they've been allowed to achieve. And Raheem, to those people, doesn't do that."
Mcleod said similar instances are plentiful and cross racial lines, citing Lewis Hamilton, who has been wildly successful as an auto racing driver and should be universally embraced but is also a tabloid target; as well as Wayne Rooney, who was a star from England but never quite received the adulation of a top-tier legend.
In both cases -- as well as in Sterling's case, Mcleod said -- the tabloid press in England, which generally caters to working class readers but is operated and staffed by journalists and executives who are predominantly middle class, identifies a seeming failure to genuflect and turns it into a long-running narrative about a "controversial figure." Then, the mainstream media, even if those papers and reporters decry the tabloid coverage, cover the coverage, or the reaction to the coverage, and the story goes on and on.
"It's about social conservatism in the end," Mcleod said. "It's basically just a long take on the idea of, 'Yeah, you can ride with us -- but don't be too uppity.'"
It should be said: Sterling is not perfect. He has twice been arrested for minor assault against a girlfriend (both charges were later dropped) and he has had a handful of behavior issues, such as his late arrival to this recent World Cup training camp. There is, too, a physical component. Sterling, for all his success with Liverpool and Manchester City, has struggled to dominate with the national team. And now, as England prepares for its second group stage match of this World Cup, there is speculation that Sterling may not start.
Yet it still seems to go beyond. And given the apparent incongruity between what Sterling has done and how he is portrayed -- as greedy, as focused on "bling," to use the unfortunate dog-whistle terminology -- it seems reasonable to wonder whether he is a polarizing figure or, as Barnes put it, "a storm in a teacup" that is not even of his own making.
Sterling, for his part, appears both nonplussed and unbothered by it all, which is both remarkable and admirable. In his essay, he wrote of his critics, "They hate what they don't even know," and concluded with a request.
"If you grew up the same way I grew up," he wrote, "don't listen to what certain tabloids want to tell you. They just want to steal your joy."
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.