Raheem Sterling, Michel Foucault and football’s racist discourse


They were close enough to hit him, if they wanted to.

As it was, they only screamed, faces contorted, spit flying from their mouths: “you f–king black c–t.”

Raheem Sterling ignored them, picked up the ball and prepared for the corner he had just won for his team.

This incident dominated headlines all week after it happened on Dec. 8. The British media in particular and the football establishment in general grappled with the problem of racism in the sport.

One wonders what Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang thought about all this. The Arsenal forward was the victim of racist abuse — in the form of a banana skin thrown toward him as he celebrated scoring in the north London derby — not a week earlier. The public outcry was far more muted.

The difference between the cases, of course, was the response of the two players. While Aubameyang chose not to speak publicly immediately following the incident, Sterling took to Instagram to criticize the media for their role in propagating racism.


While it’s rare for a footballer of Sterling’s stature to discuss these issues publicly, the dynamic he’s describing is hardly new.

Michel Foucault wrote extensively about how our public discourse is shaped by those with power. Given the reaction to these recent incidents it is instructive to recall his argument, presented in his paper, “The Order of Discourse,” that “Discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination … discourse is the power which is to be seized.”

That is, our discourse isn’t a reflection of us; we are a reflection of it. And it is controlled by those with power. Who are those people? In the UK, a recent study found that 94 percent of the media are white.

The key point here is that focusing on individual incidents allows people to ignore the larger structural and material effects of racism. When the relevant authorities come down hard on the individuals responsible for these public acts of racism, it’s all too easy to ignore the systemic nature of the problem.

This is a failure. And it is a failure anyone who professes to care about combating racism must learn to avoid. That begins by understanding the various, often very subtle ways in which the public discourse surrounding football encourages us to think about, and ultimately treat, black players.


The teams were level at 2-2 heading into stoppage time. Belgium, having fought back to level the score after giving up two goals early in the second half, were searching desperately for a winner. With 93 minutes gone, Thibaut Courtois plucked a Japanese corner out of the air and rolled the ball to Kevin De Bruyne to initiate one final attack.

De Bruyne carried it almost 40 yards before playing in Thomas Meunier on the right wing. Meanwhile, Romelu Lukaku had run half the length of pitch in the hope of getting on the end of Meunier’s cross — only he didn’t get on the end of the cross. Instead, he darted toward the ball, dragging Japan captain Makoto Hasebe out of position, and dummied it. That left Nacer Chadli wide open for an easy finish.

Belgium’s winning goal against Japan in the World Cup round of 16 was arguably the most thrilling football moment of the year, and its star didn’t even touch the ball. Lukaku’s run oozed intelligence, creativity and awareness. You would be forgiven, however, if you’d never heard he possessed any of these qualities at all, much less that he could demonstrate them in such a high-pressure moment.

When Lukaku was linked with a move to Manchester United in the summer of 2017 (as a possible alternative to Alvaro Morata), it was his supposed lack of intelligence that became one of the media’s biggest talking points. Here is just a sample of the comments made by high-profile voices around the world of football:

“If you offered me the choice between Morata and Lukaku, I wouldn’t even think about it. I would pay £20 million or £30 million more if I had to and I would bring in Morata. That is because I would always prefer an intelligent player in my team. Even if he doesn’t score as many goals, even if he doesn’t do whatever he needs to.”Mina Rzouki

“Lukaku’s not bright enough to play with Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas. He needs the ball over the top, and he’ll get that at Manchester United.”Paul Merson

“You judge a player by the decisions he makes and Lukaku doesn’t make enough good ones. He only sees the goal, he doesn’t have enough awareness of other players. He puts his head down and runs hard and fast. Is he an intelligent player? Not for me.” – Martin Keown

The message was clear: Lukaku is a physical player, an athletic specimen, above all else.

In isolation, perhaps these opinions would be harmless enough, but these opinions do not exist in isolation. They exist within a sport that routinely reduces black players to their physical attributes, that denies their intelligence, that assumes all they have to offer is pace and power. This problem is not restricted to the pundit class.

Earlier this season, for example, it was reported that Manchester City had received a complaint that their chief youth scout, Dean Ramsdale, used the acronym BBQ — short for big, black and quick — to refer to black players.

A recent release of documents by Football Leaks uncovered an alleged racialized quota system implemented at Paris Saint-Germain’s youth academy from 2013 to spring of 2018. PSG’s former chief scout in France, Marc Westerloppe, is alleged to have told his colleagues that “there is a problem with the direction of this club … there are too many West Indians and Africans in Paris.”

In 2011, former France player and manager Laurent Blanc reportedly suggested implementing some kind of quota system in the national academy as a way to ensure players with “our culture and history” were going to represent Les Bleus at the senior level. The same report revealed that other officials felt there were “too many black and Arab players” in France.

Blanc, who was part of the celebrated Black, Blanc, Beur France team that lifted the World Cup on home soil in 1998, seemingly wasn’t happy with the multi-ethnic makeup of the national team. He was reported to have said, “You have the impression that they really train the same prototype of players, big, strong, powerful … What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks.”

Blanc’s former teammate, Willy Sagnol, expressed a similar view in 2013. “The advantage of the typical African player is that he’s not expensive, is generally up for a fight, someone you could qualify as powerful on the pitch,” he said. “But football isn’t only that … it’s also about technique, intelligence and discipline. You need a bit of everything.”

Sagnol was widely criticized for his comments, but his apology revealed how deep-rooted his conceptions of black footballers are. He said, “If through my lack of clarity and imperfect semantics, I made people feel shocked, humiliated or hurt, I am sorry.

“Given that we were talking about football, the intelligence I mentioned was obviously tactical intelligence. In no way was I talking about intelligence in the literal sense of the word, concerning individuals.”

The apology, of course, misses the point entirely. The assumed intelligence of the “African” footballer, whether in a general sense or a tactical one, is tarred with the same racialized brush.

Sagnol made these comments while manager of Bordeaux. Blanc was the manager of the French national team, and later PSG. David Ramsdale was the chief scout at one of the biggest and best teams in the world. The opinions of these men are not harmless. They impact the fates of countless players. And, whether consciously or not, they further entrench the racist stereotypes of the skill sets of black footballers.


There are few better illustrations of how powerful these prejudices can be than the career of Yaya Toure.

Toure came to prominence at Barcelona in the mid-2000s, a 6-foot-2 black man surrounded, for the most part, by small, white, technical teammates. Despite his attacking skill set, he was used as a center-back by Pep Guardiola before moving to Manchester City in 2010.

There was almost no precedent for talking about a big, black player with Toure’s skill set, and therefore he couldn’t exist as an attacking footballer. It was only under very special circumstances at City that perceptions began to change.

City’s midfield was somewhat imbalanced at the time. Roberto Mancini had decided to play with a three-man midfield of Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure. Next to two defense-minded players, Toure finally had an opportunity to express himself.

This makeshift group birthed the Yaya Toure that English football came to know. The intricate passing exchanges with David Silva, the surging runs and, of course, the goals.

In 2013-14, Toure scored 20 in the Premier League, and created nine others. His teammate Samir Nasri, speaking near the end of the season, said Toure would be recognized as one of the world’s leading footballers if he was born in Europe or South America.

“I think what Samir was saying was definitely true,” Toure responded. “To be honest, proper recognition has only come from the fans. I don’t want to be hard and I don’t want to be negative, but I want to be honest.”

Toure’s rebirth as an attacking midfielder came with the frustration of his lack of recognition by the football establishment. Toure is every black professional who walks into an important meeting at work only to be mistaken for the assistant. He is every smartly dressed black person at a function thought to be the help. He is disregarded and underrated.


The sorts of prejudices that lead so many people within the football establishment to assume players like Lukaku and Toure must fit a certain mold also impact expectations for the overall behavior and demeanor of black players.

Consider the contrasting examples of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, the starting central midfield pairing for the French team that won the World Cup this summer.

Pogba is technical, flashy, a wearer of bright colors. He has colorful hair and expressive goal celebrations. He is active on social media. Pogba doesn’t need to be a nightclub-going heavy drinker for his actions to warrant the label of unprofessionalism. He just needs to have a personality.

As a result, his body has become a topic for public discussion. Among those to have made disapproving comments about Pogba’s hair are Gary Neville, Steve McMahon, Garth Crooks, Mark Lawrenson, Paul Parker and Warren Joyce.

Kante, in contrast, is quiet, shy, he rarely posts on social media, he has a simple haircut and his playing style fits perfectly with expectations of the black footballer: He’s a hard-working, energetic defensive midfielder.

When Kante has played badly this season, the focus has largely been on his manager, Maurizio Sarri, for playing him in a position he’s not used to. When Pogba has played badly many have accused him of laziness, despite playing for a manager who was (before he was fired) widely recognized to be doing a bad job. Perhaps Pogba, too, might benefit from playing for a coach who’s interested in getting the best out of him.

Once again, the differing treatment of Pogba and Kante might not mean anything in isolation. There are other reasons, like his price tag, that Pogba comes under more scrutiny than Kante. But their treatment doesn’t exist in isolation. It exists in a sport that expects black players to play in a certain way on the pitch and to behave in a certain way off it.

Here again, Sterling is a useful example.

Adam Keyworth has helped compile a running list of some of the media stories written about Sterling over the past few years. In each one, the offense is different.

  • He has the gall to eat breakfast
  • He was called “obscene Raheem” for buying his mother a house
  • He was then called cheap for shopping at PoundLand
  • He was criticized for proposing to his “long-suffering” girlfriend

For the reasons Sterling so deftly pointed out in his Instagram post in early December — not to mention the way the football establishment thinks about black players in general — it is hard to avoid the conclusion he is treated this way because he’s black.

There have been great black English footballers before, of course, but for every John Barnes there has been a Paul Gascoigne. Sterling holds the scary position of being the first non-white lead creator for the Three Lions.

Certain influential sectors of the media seem to have decided this is unacceptable. We must be clear that this is an institutional problem. The production of content is not the responsibility of one individual; it’s a process that involves reporters, producers, editors, copy editors and more, which is in turn influenced by the way those working within football think about the game.

As the examples of Blanc, Sagnol and Ramsdale show, even those whose job it is is to find the best talent available to them are impacted by racial biases.


Finally, it is necessary to point out that the way people think about black players does not only amount to bad analysis or an occasionally hostile working environment.

One of the most striking things about the incident at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 8 was how it laid bare what is often — like in Aubameyang’s case — only an implicit threat of violence. Those men didn’t hit Sterling, but they could have. Others have.

Last December, Sterling was physically attacked and subjected to racist abuse outside the Manchester City training ground. The culprit was punished. That allowed everyone who wanted to move on from the incident to move on, without considering what it implied about the sport they love.

A year later, in the wake of a less extreme but far more public expression of the racism in football, it is time to learn an important lesson: There is no moving on.

The Unexamined Game is a series exploring the intersection of philosophy and football. You can find the previous articles in the series here: 

Toward a philosophy of football

Pep Guardiola, tiki-taka and the end of football

Ball don’t lie: Football’s problem of other minds

How Isaac Newton ruined football

Stefano Pioli, and the power of mindfulness