Born in Jamaica, having an underprivileged upbringing and a troubled youth- all the while honing his skills in the shadow of Wembley Stadium, Raheem Sterling’s story epitomises the power of sport, or rather the ability of sport to empower individuals to triumph in the face of adversity and succeed in an incredibly competitive field. Yet, the Manchester City winger is subject to racial abuse and ridicule from footballing crowds because of his background. Although his route to elite sports may be uniquely his own, his experiences with supposed supporters of his club or his sport, is dishearteningly common. Sometimes there is a discrepancy in what an individual deems to be socially acceptable behaviour in all other facets of society and what is acceptable in the stands or around a sports grounds, and their behaviour can deteriorate to spectator violence.  

Sterling is having arguably one of the best seasons of his career, playing a crucial role in Pep Guardiola’s quadruple-chasing side, after representing England at the FIFA World Cup in the country’s best showing at a major tournament in quite some time. However, the player has also been making headlines for off-field incidents in recent months and has become, by no ambition of his own, the voice of the latest group of players taking a stand against racism. After a recent international qualifier against Montenegro he claimed that all he and fellow players can do is “bring awareness to the situation,” and he called on those in power to impose more serious sanctions, such as playing some games being played behind closed doors. Life-time bans for individuals and fines aren’t enough according to the winger. The situation is quickly becoming untenable and addressing isolated incidents won’t stop violence in and around the stands. New proposed technologies and infrastructures to tackle anti-social behaviour are only fighting the symptoms of this endemic problem. Facial recognition scanners, increased law enforcement presence and family only zones in stadiums cannot win the war on fanatic misdemeanour.

At its inception, football was a game played between neighbouring villages with that unquantifiable quality of pride being the ultimate prize for the victor. The game was built on this divisive ‘our village vs your village’ mentality which requires an ‘outsider’ or an ‘other’, something deeply ingrained in the fabric of the game. More regulations have been imposed in the interim, and the players may be slightly richer than they were back then, but the game is still essentially the same. Derby matches between teams that are geographically close remain some of the most keenly contested and important games of a team’s season. The old faithful in the stand still holds their academy graduates in the same high regard and not much can get a home crowd on its feet quite like an embattled home-grown club captain putting in a bone-crunching tackle. The collective consciousness of the crowd does discriminate and loves to pick the easiest target. The colour of a player’s skin, their nationality, whatever story the media has scandalised and taken out of context concerning a player. When the team is losing, some members of the crowd feel they’re entitled to, not only to hurl personal attacks at the players, but to start to bring the racial profile of the athlete into their argument.

The mob mentality cultivated at sporting events is as complex and divisive as the brawls which it precipitates, and accordingly the psychological rationale to explain crowd misdemeanour is still unclear. That is, it’s difficult to pinpoint a concrete explanation for the little kid that once ran around with shin guards outside their socks, tripping over the laces of boots two sizes too big, being in a stand, with no reservations about joining the people around them in hurling abuse at an official or a player, or throwing chairs around in a major European city.

Some experts cite the relationship die-hard fans have with the sport to be the root cause. The majority of such heavily invested fans have played the game at a younger age and for whatever reason never made it to the professional ranks. Supporting the team allows these individuals to experience the emotions of a footballer vicariously, leading to high emotional investment in supporting the team. That is not to say they want to be a sportsperson, or that they are jealous, but the supporter enjoys second-hand emotions. Some fans set aside a significant portion of their wages to pay for things such as matchday tickets, transport to the game and replica teamwear. Put this individual in a dense crowd of similarly emotionally charged individuals at a pivotal or high stakes game and you create a very volatile atmosphere. Research by Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan suggests that the risk factors for spectator violence include crowd density, game importance, strong sense of identity, alcohol consumption and player violence. The presence of the crowd empowers the individual spectator and delocalized decision making. Dangerous riots kick off, public and private property is damaged, and fights break out. Sometimes the behaviour isn’t just anti-social but breaks into illegal territory and can have a life altering and sometimes fatal consequences for other supporters.

Nobody is suggesting that supporters should sit passively in the stands, applauding civilly where appropriate. Remove factors important to the fan-base such as club loyalty and local pride and you sanitise the game. Football becomes nothing more than 22 lads lumping a football around, rugby becomes 30 lads running into each other. Although the causes of mob mentality are understandable, that is not to say they are acceptable. There is a line where enthusiasm encroaches on fanaticism and complaints from the crowd turn to inappropriate insults. There is a place for passionate support, in fact it is an essential foundation of all team sports, but there is no place for spectator violence and personal attacks of players, officials or other supporters.

You need only consider the range of nationalities in the average Premier League dressing room to see how diverse modern sports have become. Sports now have an incredible ability to bring together, not only incredibly talented sporting individuals, but also an ever expanding fanbase from all socio-economic and racial backgrounds in a unique manner. Missing a sitter is a ridicule-worthy offence regardless of what continent you’re on, all groups of fans can appreciate qualities such as skill, work-rate and resilience. Is it right that something which has this ability to unite people from all over the world to work together, can be tarnished by a small-minded few?