For the uninitiated, Joey Barton captains and plays midfield for the Queens Park Rangers (QPR), a newly promoted side in the Premier League. He enjoys a certain amount of infamy in British sporting circles; having worked his way up through the ranks at Manchester City and been capped for England, he went a little off the rails and was jailed for assault at 25 in May 2008. In the same year he launched a vicious assault on teammate Ousmane Dabo during a training session, for which he received a suspended sentence. So far so typical, I guess we might say. Every other rugby league team these days seems to have one or two lads who sport shades of the Joseph Anthony Barton of 2007/2008.
Since then, Barton has not divorced himself completely from controversy, but he has turned his life around to a remarkable extent, becoming in the process one of the most interesting and polarising sportspeople in Britain. He is a prolific tweeter (@Joey7Barton), racking up 4000 tweets and boasting over 1,000,000 followers, covering all manner of sports, religion, the media, politics and touching often on his appreciation for George Orwell and The Smiths. He has become an avid reader, started writing a regular column for The Big Issue, and has recently offered some explosively challenging but common sense commentary on the John Terry racial abuse trial to be heard in July this year.
It is difficult to think of a single figure in Australian sport who is both willing and able to combine his or her efforts on the sporting field with a public intellectual life as well. Our sportspeople seem to be either not trained at all to be public professionals, or trained so ruthlessly to focus on the physical aspects of their work and their “media image” that they end up coming across as bereft of personality and without a non-sporting opinion to their name. Polymath truly is a dirty word in Australian public life.
Surely it is time for some of our sporting superstars to stand up for the nation and play a larger role in the public discourse that extends beyond their muscles and physical attributes. As a sporting nation, are we all really so “white bread” – so single-minded in our individual physical pursuits? Perhaps its time to change the widely accepted definition of what it means to be a successful sportsperson in the 21st century. I’d much prefer to hear what Australian’s next big swimming star thinks about the republic or gay marriage than who their next lucrative sponsorship deal is with.