Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Being Human

By Shane Thomas

Trigger Warning for discussions of misogyny, homophobia, and rape.

I think we can agree that being a professional athlete requires a degree of diligence around one's physical conditioning. And despite this, is often a profession that has enervating effects on both body and mind.
However, in the era of the sports-industrial complex, the twin currencies of money and fame have caused those in the upper sector of high profile sports to be perceived as real-life deities, (or demons, depending on your viewpoint) celestial beings, here for our entertainment.

From many sources, there was little in the way of sympathy towards Raheem Sterling, who was left out of England's starting XI against Estonia on Sunday, because he advised manager, Roy Hodgson that he was feeling tired.

The backlash towards Sterling came not only from fans, but from ex-players, with comparisons being drawn to men who work in ordinary jobs[1], people who fought in wars, and even some sly racism, with one Twitter account telling Sterling to "sod off and play for Jamaica" - which is his country of birth[2].

These comparisons are as asinine as they are pointless. No-one is calling into question the the tiring nature of jobs outside sport. But while they may be pressurised environments, they aren't broadcast to millions on television, and subject to the opinions of large swathes of the country.

Also, at no point did Sterling refuse to play. He just notified his manager that he was feeling fatigued, and as such, was unlikely to produce his best. I didn't see him protest when he came into the match against Estonia from the substitutes bench. Those admonishing Sterling for some nebulous dereliction of duty would do well to remember that it was he who won the free-kick from which Wayne Rooney subsequently won the game.

While Hodgson did Sterling few favours by disclosing a conversation between the two that should have remained private, the response towards Sterling is symptomatic of a wider problem that surrounds football - and much of sport.

I remember as a kid hearing that football is, "a man's game". It's common to hear such a refrain, now. For clarity's sake, that idiom isn't just exclusionary of women, but anyone who doesn't fit the patriarchal ideal of what a "man" is.

Acceptance of fatigue? Forbidden. In physical and/or emotional pain? Not allowed here. Gay? Suggest you get into hairdressing, football's not for you. You're a trans man? Remain invisible. I don't want to even see you in my society.

All the above are links in a chain. And the effects of that chain are particularly acute in British football culture. One that still prizes endeavour over technique. One that treats industry and skill as mutually exclusive attributes, when of course no player ever reached the top of their game without working hard.

But as long as those England players are running around a lot, regardless of the detrimental effects on their productivity to the team strategy, everything else is secondary. Far too many fans think that demonstrable pride and passion, and shouting a lot, is all that's needed for success.

The Times's Oliver Kay is right when he says that Hodgson has a duty to listen to all his players, and given the pressure and workload that's being piled on what is still only a 19 year old, Sterling deserves credit for being honest with Hodgson. Anyone who's watched him play recently has seen that his form has dipped, and a mediocre display against Estonia would likely have resulted in criticism for underperforming.

Sterling responded to some of the tweets with a tweet of his own"Excuse me for being human".

In what are hopefully the embryonic stages of his career, Sterling is finding out the sad fact that a rich and famous sports star isn't allowed to be human.


Two disturbing sporting stories have come to light, one on this side of the pond, one on the other.

In England, the LSE (London School of Economics) rugby union team has been disbanded after they distributed flyers at the university's Freshers Fair that was rife with misogynistic and homophobic content.

What makes this more disconcerting was not only that the club had been involved in bigoted conduct for years, including racism and Islamophobia, but they had been warned repeatedly to take the necessary corrective action, without ever doing so.

Meanwhile, in America, The Sayreville Bombers high school (American) football team have had their season cancelled, after seven of their players were charged with offences, ranging from criminal restraint to aggravated sexual assault.

This behaviour was concentrated within the team, with younger members of the team picked on for what has been described as "hazing"[3].

As The Nation's Dave Zirin said in his piece on Sayreville, these incidents involved, "bystanders seeing the assault and choosing to do nothing."

Be it the LSE rugby union team, or the Sayreville football team, the reprehensible behaviour proceeded because it was given the complicit oxygen to survive by those who either stood by and encouraged, or others to chose to look elsewhere.

While men continue to allow this toxic culture to permeate sport - and further afield - these stories are just another chapter in a book that should have been shut a long time ago.

[1] - Notice how "the working woman" is never evoked in these situations?

[2] - A criticism to which John Barnes can sadly relate.

[3] - Can we bury that American colloquialism in the same place as that emetic British colloquialism, "banter"?

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