Written by By Staff Writer
When Jamaican-born England footballer Raheem Sterling raised his hands in the air to signal a gesture often associated with the National Anthem, he was doing more than taking a stand on issues he views as important — he was demonstrating a patriotism that in the UK borders on the outright tribal.
Likened to the now-retired players who took a knee when the word ‘God’ was dropped from the American Pledge of Allegiance, Sterling’s stance is now backfiring on him — and other star players who took a knee in solidarity with him.
Sterling first appeared in black and gold for his country’s senior side when he was 12 years old. Since then he has contributed to the country’s golden years on the pitch, playing in 19 of England’s 23-game World Cup campaign in Russia, as well as the successful 2016 European Championship.
“It was the right thing to do and I stand by it 100%, but I have faced a lot of criticism,” he told the BBC on Sunday. “We were taken out of our team meetings and the dressing room and told we could not do it.”
From a male-dominated country, to one that is largely European-grown and immigrants’ babies, Sterling’s recent and well-publicized protests have been met with a mix of appreciation and indifference.
But reactions from fans in England have made it seem his patriotism may be divisive enough to merit a minimum sentence of “re-education.”
Sterling’s father, Sterling Layne, was born in Guyana and raised in Britain, where he spent most of his career. Sterling’s stepfather is also English but has Jamaican citizenship.
There was immediate backlash from English football fans.
“If there was no UK citizen in the country, I’d say it was wrong,” said YouTube broadcaster Neil Collins. “However, my logic is tested by the man overseas,” adding that Britain’s culture and language were representative of all islands.
Jones Lawson, a journalist from Bristol who runs a sports and culture podcast, said that patriotism was never solely about national heritage and identity.
“I think if Sterling were a Jamaican he would have done the same thing as he does,” said Lawson. “Sterling only has to look across the channel and see how our fellow expatriates have responded to our support for their team.”
For Ali Hoccar, a sociologist and author who has studied the relationship between culture and nationality in the UK, Sterling’s stance could be indicative of a shift away from the notion of unification toward nation-state-vs.-community allegiance.
“Ethnic nationalism has always been part of nationalism, and I think that’s going to remain,” said Hoccar. “However, in the U.K. the division between community and national identity is going to be more of a reality.”
Sterling is one of several African-Caribbean players, including teammate Idrissa Gueye, who have recently opted to show solidarity with NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence.
“It seems like lots of people are feeling a little bit more pain for people of color in this country and that is affecting social cohesion,” said Hoccar. “It becomes a sentiment when people feel a little bit of frustration about racism. And that becomes what national identity becomes.”
Some fans have explained the player’s actions as a means of deflecting condemnation and unnecessary anger towards him and his national team.
“Sterling is clearly a celebrity who is spoiled and is in a position to make powerful statements,” said Richard Dean, a digital editor at a British music magazine. “But I think you need to remember that the difference between American football and soccer is a distance.
“It does seem like people are responding with a xenophobic or chauvinistic view and saying this is your anthem, your flag, your country. That isn’t how it’s done over here. It’s very inclusive.”
Meanwhile, Sterling, who was the most expensive player ever in England, has a job to do. As he contemplates any future international opportunities, or how he’s going to compensate for missing the World Cup, he must be aware of the impact his demonstrations are having on the reputation of England’s national team, according to Byrne Corman, a professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
“We must also remember that Sterling has been given a gold spot on the England team where he’ll be leading a career lasting until 40 years old, and he has another decade of Premier League matches to play and a glorious youth career to end,” said Corman.
“Those represent some of the most basic and fundamental requirements of the English national team.”