For the second time in less than a year, Raheem Sterling had an overnight in police custody after being arrested on common assault charges. The first set of charges were dropped in May after witnesses failed to appear in court; Sterling faces trial in September for the second set of charges for common assault against the woman he is dating, and for which he has already entered a plea of not guilty. Liverpool declined to comment in both cases.
These are the facts as they stand at the moment. The rest is wrapped up in the nebulous word "allegedly" that provides all sorts of wiggle room for interpretation and application of opinion. Like Liverpool FC, we usually choose not to comment on cases that still exist at the "allegedly" stage: we are not lawyers, we are not present when the alleged incidents allegedly happen, and we are not the Daily Mail.
Raheem Sterling presents us with a conundrum, then, as two common assault charges in the span of nine months adds a little bit more weight to both sets of charges, despite the dismissal of the first set. We're still in boggy "allegedly" territory, but it becomes more necessary to talk about the player and why he's repeatedly putting himself in situations where he's being arrested for common assault, regardless of what the outcome of those charges might be.
Sterling's situation is complicated by the fact that he's still so very young. With his age comes a somewhat knee-jerk public reaction that poor behaviour is part of a learning curve towards becoming a man, and not a behaviour fully within his control no matter his age. "He's just a kid, he made a mistake" is a common refrain; there's the natural human desire to give someone a second chance and to not be branded by something that happened before they were even old enough to vote. We're hurt, then, when a second chance is marred by a repeat offense.
Allegedly, of course.
The thing about "allegedly" is that in the grand scheme of athletes and their off-pitch violent actions, it doesn't actually matter if Sterling did or did not commit common assault. He's Schrödinger's Footballer: we can't know what he did or did not do until someone opens the box in court. (Assuming it gets that far.) Sterling's case is hardly unique in football, though, which is why his individual case might be interesting to Liverpool fans specifically but is just another drop in the ocean of a larger problem.
Last week when Liverpool's list of "unacceptable" words circulated, one of the terms most laughed at was "man up," not least of all because the club's kit sponsor, Warrior, used the phrase on their website as part of a call to action to register for their mailing list. There was a lot of mocking of "man up" making the list, suggesting that although people knew why many of the other more colourful terms were included, "man up" somehow made it there accidentally.
"Man up", of course, derives its power to insult through implying that not being a man is deeply problematic. It's amongst the most casual, speakable words on Liverpool's list and is a prime example of how we err in teaching boys to become men in our culture. Former NFL player Don McPherson, who has made a post-playing career of educating on sports leadership and sports in society, honed in on precisely the ways this type of attitude harms both girls/women and boys/men:
I came to realize that we don’t raise boys to be men, we raise them not to be women (or gay men). We teach boys that girls and women are “less than” and that leads to violence by some and silence by many. It’s important for men to stand up to not only stop men’s violence against women but, to teach young men a broader definition of masculinity that includes being empathetic, loving and non-violent.
"Man up" is literally a two word expression encompassing the idea of being raised to not be a woman, rather than being raised to be a man. What we mean when we tell someone to "man up" is not to push them towards McPherson's "broader definition of masculinity" but to ask them to step into a very narrow, hyper-masculine set of behaviours that exists in dire opposition to our equally narrow definition of being a woman. Is it any wonder that in a sport where "man up" and similar insults are thrown around without care that players continually find themselves locked up for assaults on their wives, girlfriends, or other women?
Inevitably in any conversation that revolves around domestic violence, there is a voice that cries out "But not all men are like that!" Obviously. Clearly. The question becomes, then, what are those other men, the good men, doing about it? What do you do about it in a football club, where attitudes are not always progressive and where players are subject to a heap of influences, many not entirely positive?
Brendan Rodgers spoke last season about wanting to bring in more players of character, because he felt this was something he did not have nearly enough of in the dressing room. While he was clearly speaking of the types of leadership qualities exhibited by his more senior players, especially those who "get" what the club is about, it's those same qualities that when taken to their logical conclusion can help a young player become a man rather than just "manning up."
How the club chooses to deal with Raheem Sterling's entanglements with the law will be interesting as more details emerge and as the case goes to court. Whether Sterling is found guilty or not, assaulting one's girlfriend has ruined far fewer careers than it should in a sport that rewards talent by turning a blind eye to poor personal behaviour. The simple fact that this is the second time this has happened to Sterling should raise at least some concerns at the club, although judging by his inclusion in the line-up — albeit on the bench, where he stayed all match — during yesterday's friendly in Ireland, this may not be the case.
Many believe that a football club is not the place to be finding direction for one's moral compass, both for fans and players alike. There's a perception that Sterling's issue is simply a legal one that presents yet another PR problem for the club to deal with, but this treats the issue on such a shallow level that it's embarrassing. Football clubs don't have to have a moral agenda, but a club like Liverpool, with its history, its values, and its ethos, is certainly in a position to do more than just chauffer its players to court dates.