Why is the narrative around black athletes mainly about their physicality?
Pogba is one of the best technicians in the world, yet it's his pace and power that's talked about
United’s Paul Pogba after scoring against Brighton at Old Trafford on January 19th. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
It is just over six weeks since Raheem Sterling caused a stir on an otherwise sleepy Sunday morning. Dogs were being walked and churches were being prepared for service when the winger grabbed people’s attention with that Instagram post. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, we were talking about race.
Specifically, we were talking about how we talk about race. Sterling had honed in on the practices of certain sections of the media, claiming they helped “fuel racism”, and from the industry came an acceptance that things had to change. Chins were stroked, think pieces were written. This, we were told, was a turning point. And then everyone simply turned back to what they had previously been doing.
The debate moved on, to things like spying and who Tottenham may sign to cover Harry Kane while he’s injured, with all publications equally as prone to doing so. Sadly, it’s often the way when it comes to attention on racism in this country. But that’s not to say many of the journalists who came out in support of Sterling do not care, or to overlook the fact change takes time. In that regard it is encouraging to know, as I do, that there’s a broad-ranging group of media figures working slowly but surely right now to improve black and minority ethnic (BAME) coverage across all sports.
Whether they succeed or not is difficult to call, but the will is there to change an environment in which phrases such as “crystal-encrusted sink” are allowed to enter the national lexicon, causing harm and upset. Some will argue those responsible should know better, which is true, but what is also required is a considered, pro-active stance right across the board.
And that’s not just in regards to the type of stuff that leads to a 24-year-old elite footballer feeling compelled to use social media as a political platform. It also relates to misdemeanours that are subtle and largely unintended but, in their own way, also cause damage. Which brings me on to Paul Pogba.
You may have noticed he has been playing well for Manchester United recently, scoring his fifth goal in five games during Saturday’s 2-1 win against Brighton. The upturn has coincided with José Mourinho’s departure, and given the Portuguese was very much the Dave Clifton to Pogba’s Alan Partridge during their time together at Old Trafford that is no great surprise.
The Frenchman’s mood has lifted and improved displays have followed. In turn, that has been analysed, leading to the use of a particular thread of language.
Take the column Jamie Redknapp wrote for the Daily Mail following United’s 4-1 victory over Bournemouth in December, in which he spoke about Pogba’s “pace” and “power” and how the midfielder “knows he is bigger and stronger than you” in regards to his second goal of the game, a 33rd-minute header.
There has been similar from others, including Graeme Souness during his punditry stint for United’s 1-0 win at Tottenham, when the Scot spoke a lot about Pogba’s hard-running and muscularity during a contest in which his most telling contribution had been the pinpoint delivery that set up Marcus Rashford’s goal. It is all well intended, but it is also part of a narrative that follows black athletes around, namely that their primary attributes are physical rather than creative or intellectual.
The same narrative explains why certain black players – think Patrick Vieira, Yaya Touré and Mousa Dembélé – are referred to as “beasts” and why, on a broader level, there are so few black coaches and managers. Much of this is unintentional – the type of unconscious bias we’re all guilty of – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.
That’s what the people behind the Touchline Fracas podcast have done by bringing out T-shirts with “PNP” on the front – “Pace and power”; a phrase they and many other black people are tired of hearing.
“A lot of this comes down to an old-school way of thinking, that black players aren’t capable of being, or to be trusted as, the ‘orchestrator’ in important positions. It’s repeated so often that it’s become a common belief,” says Touchline Fracas contributor Ife Meedolson.
“Pogba is a modern-day example of someone who’s been affected by this. He’s one of the best technicians in the world, a brilliant passer, yet so much of the discussion around him is based on his athleticism and, yes, his pace and power.”
A change of language requires a change of culture, which means those involved thinking more about what they say and write. In the long-term what would undeniably help is greater diversity. The more BAME editors, writers, producers and presenters there are the better the BAME coverage will be. That’s also required in an industry which, to be blunt, has been too white for too long, and needs to do a better job of reflecting the society it represents.
And anyone doubting something undesirable is going on in regards to how Pogba is covered should consider the fact that, size-wise he isn’t particularly big for a modern midfielder; 6ft 3in and 84kg, almost identical to André Gomes (6ft 2in and 84kg), and yet the coverage around the latter’s impact at Everton has been less about his physicality and more about his craft.
All of this is difficult territory but as John Barnes, a consistently exceptional voice on football and race, says: “We need to talk openly about perceptions and not be afraid of the fact we have different views about people based on how they look.”
That is especially true of the media given the influence those involved hold on public discourse. There needs to be more thought, kindness, fairness and diversity.
Otherwise Sterling’s intervention really will have been for nothing.