Is it cos Sturridge is black? A call for research on race and football

Sachin Nakrani posted a thoughtful and thought-provoking article over the weekend asking why Daniel Sturridge is received with so little affection, despite being one of (I would say the) the most talented and prolific English footballers of his generations. Nakrani tentatively raised the possibility that it is because of his race. Not so much due to conscious racism (though doubtless there is some of that), but more subtle, insidious unconscious biases – for example, the possibility that it is more difficult for young white kids to identify with a black player. He suggests that Sturridge might be stereotyped as feckless or lazy, as other black sportsmen, such as Chris Gayle are.

Nakrani’s article raises a other ways in which Sturridge’s blackness might influence his popularity, though he does not pursue them. He cites John Barnes’ argument that black footballers have been denied the opportunity to become managers because “They are black – which, for many, means they are good athletes but incapable of being anything above and beyond that”. Nakrani observes that:

his assertion that black footballers are only renowned for their athletic prowess can be seen by the way in which those who are over 6ft tall, powerful and muscular are often referred to as ‘beasts’. Yaya Toure is a beast, as is Victor Wanyama. As was Patrick Vieira. It’s not meant with any malice but that phrase used in that context is utterly awful if you stop to think about it

Nakrani does not connect this thought to Sturridge, but I would speculate that there is a link. Sturridge has physical attributes – in particular, his speed – but he is certainly not a ‘beast’. Rather, he breaks the archetype because his success is based on his wits – his intelligent use of space, his decision-making in front of goal – as exemplified by his recent goal against Wales. Indeed, there is a particular irony, given Sturridge’s woeful injury record, that here we have a black sportsman whose body is a liability as much as an asset.

Similarly, Michael Docherty speculates about whether Sturridge’s dourness in interviews – he is professional to the extreme, often seeming joyless – is a reaction to the stereotype of fecklessness, but one which merely leads to him being seen as cold and distant.

Nakrani contrasts Sturridge’s apparent lack of popularity with the warmth of Mamadou Sakho’s relationship with Liverpool fans, and you could definitely add Kolo Toure to that comparison. A possibility in my mind is that this is due to something, for want of a better word, ‘clownish’ about Sakho and Toure – which is reassuringly unthreatening.

In this context, there is something eerily salient about Alex Diamond’s account of the racial politics of the basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:

it didn’t help Abdul-Jabbar’s popularity with White fans that he rejected their expectations of Black performers. Not only would he not clown around in the model of the Globetrotters, Abdul-Jabbar refused to so much as crack a smile. His serious, businesslike bearing (combined with the Islamic name and imposing size) conveyed a threatening image to a largely White audience who wanted their performers to seem to be enjoying themselves

Obviously, Sturridge’s alienation from mainstream fans is nowhere near as extreme as Abdul-Jabbar’s, but there are echoes. One interesting parallel that Nakrani doesn’t raise in his piece is faith. Daniel Sturridge is clearly not the only religious footballer, but there is something all-encompassing about his Christian beliefs that mark him out as unusual and other. It could be argued that the preposterous rumours that Sturridge was refusing to play for religious reasons result from the discomfiting effect of such fierce religiosity.

What these various thoughts have in common is the notion that Sturridge’s lack of popularity is due to his failure to fall in line with the accepted archetypes of black footballers: the physical bully, the clown, the modestly religious. But it occurs to me that we don’t have a clear enough view of what these archetypes are. There seems to be a high level of consciousness around race in the analysis of American sports – see, for example, this list of ‘white guy code words’, including ‘scrappy’, ‘good fundamentals’, ‘cerebral’. Though there are similarities as to how football intersects with race in Europe, there are also important differences. And yet,as far as I can tell, nobody has seriously analysed the stereotypes and labelling around race in European sports such as football – replicated the work done in the US. Someone should really get on that.

To return to Sturridge, if we did have such a compendium, I think we would see how many of thesse rules he breaks. And far from recoiling at this weirdness, I would contend that we should cherish Sturridge as a genuinely interesting footballing personality, in a game that is all too uniform.


One comment

  1. […] Sachin sensitively and insightfully locates a discourse around Daniel Sturridge’s race in the wider historic context of how various other black sportsmen have been viewed by their fellow professionals,  fans and media commentators. His provocative and persuasive argument has already been taken up with customary elan by Aveek here. […]

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