Where is Australia’s Joey Barton?

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.


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57 responses to “Where is Australia’s Joey Barton?”

  1. Tim

    Seems weird to me that you extrapolate from one British example to suggest some sort of general failure on behalf of Australian sports people. I don’t know, maybe you’re right. But how typical is Joey Barton of British sports stars?

    Regardless, Peter Fitzsimmons would appear to fit the profile you are after. Former Rugby international now a journalist and writer. Often expresses views in the media about social issues, has written biographies of Kim Beazley and the ALP as well as various sporting stars, and a number of popular history books, patron of the AFS Intercultural Exchange Program, on the board of the Sydney writer’s festival etc.

    On a related point, I’d argue that one of the reasonably distinctive features of Australian writers and intellectuals is a willingness to speak openly about sport. Doesn’t happen much in Britain from my memory of living there: in fact, sport is often seen to be beneath such people. Maybe it’s changed. US writers/intellectuals are more like Australian ones in this respect.

  2. Arch

    FWIW, I heard Jarvis Cocker and Johnny Wilkinson talking through the philosophy of quantum theory, and its implications for goal-kicking, on the BBC a few years ago. And not at a particularly superficial level either, mind you.

  3. Sam

    When putting the words sportsmen and public intellectuals in the same sentence, Shane Warne is the obvious candidate. Has anyone else managed to so successfully combine feats on the sporting field with such deep insight into the nature of the human condition?

    Warnie is truly our philospher-king.

  4. Helen

    Absolutely Sam. Thanks to his altercation with a cyclist we have been treated to more gems from Warnie’s towering intellect. The problem is that the media doesn’t take enough notice of the poor old sportsperson. They are routinely ignored. If only somehow they could garner more media attention! then their pearls of wisdom wouldn’t go unnoticed.

  5. Sam

    I’d much prefer to hear what Australian’s next big swimming star thinks about … gay marriage

    We recently heard what a former great tennis star, Margaret Court (née Smith) thinks about gay marriage. Myself, I thought she added little to the debate.

  6. akn

    Sorry Guy but the last thing I would want would be to hear anything at all from Australian sportspersons beyond their expertise or knowledge. You know: it was a dream come true…did the hard yards…turned the corner…it’s a game with two halves. Besides, if you watch any of the footie talk shows you’ll hear plenty of dog whistling commentary on everything from race to the old school ‘she was askin’ for it’ attitude to sex assault.

  7. Sam

    Guy, first, the only reason the media picked up Court’s comments was because of her sporting background. Second, the debate is far from ignored in the media. But why should comments from a sportsperson carry any more weight than anyone else?

    In the gay marriage case, if a gay footballer were to come out and say how difficult it is to be openly gay in the Australian sporting culture and say that legal gay marriage would be a big help to footballers who hide their sexuality because they are afraid of ridicule or worse from team mates/opponents/fans/coaches/commentators/sponsors, that would be a big contribution to the debate.

    But that was hardly the case with Court’s two cents worth.

  8. Fine

    I’d like to point out how important indigenous footballers such as Nicky Winmar and Michael Long, have been in talking about indigenous issues. They’re usually not shy in coming backwards.

  9. Tom

    Some posters seem to miss Guy’s argument: that given the status and attention granted to sportspeople in Australia, it would be great if they’d engage with the intellectual and political topics of the day.

    That any particular sportsperson, such as Margaret Court says something stupid about a political issue is neither here nor there.

    That sportspeople are all stupid or unable to make such a contribution is unjust vilification.

    That the culture of talk shows and commentary around major sports in Australia is largely idiotic and offensive is exactly what Guy would seek to change, I’m guessing.

    It would be fantastic for this country if our high-status sportspeople gave attention to current affairs. I’d love it if Michael Clarke came out and said “well – why not a 40% RSPT then?”

    The one fault I find in Guy’s hopes is that I follow the EPL, and Joey Barton is a nut with a screw loose! Ah well.

  10. faustusnotes

    Japan has Genki Sudo: kick-boxer, musician, essayist and humanist. His music videos are quite famous for their style, I think.

  11. daggers

    Who’s that black guy who plays for Collingwood ? He tweets and is very political. May be doing a politics degree, I think

  12. Jacques de Molay

    Harry O’Brien, the Brazilian bloke?

  13. dj

    I think Jacques has it.

  14. Sam

    That sportspeople are all stupid or unable to make such a contribution is unjust vilification.

    Alas, with only minor exceptions, they are [gratuitous slur redacted].

  15. murph the surf.

    Sportspeople exist beyond the comment policy?

  16. FDB

    That sportspeople are all stupid or unable to make such a contribution is unjust vilification.

    Alas, with only minor exceptions, they are as [quoted slur redacted].

    Non-sequitur, even if true.

  17. tigtog

    No, they don’t. Of course, LP’s moderators are volunteers who aren’t on roster 24/7. Sometimes it takes us a while to catch something, unless folks email us directly, which very few do.

  18. The Feral Abacus

    Ian Chappell on asylum seekers asylum seekers. He’s also active with the UNHCR.

    And from memory Tiger O’Reilly was never backward in coming forth with a public opinion.

  19. Sam

    My gratuitous slur had the advantage of being objectively true.

  20. tigtog

    Back on topic, back when I was a physiotherapist I did some work (during my student years) with some elite athletes (and we had a couple studying alongside us). I wouldn’t describe any of them as stupid, although they did tend to be not long on the chit-chat. I think most of them focus very hard on their sports above all else because they know that they’ve only got a short period to be at the top of the field even if they’re not injured much, but certainly if they know they’ve got a weak spot that might go at any time. It is a very rational decision to put aside many/most matters outside the scope of their sporting performance until later on in life – wouldn’t you, in their position?

    Retired elite athletes, by contrast, have plenty of time to wax philosophical, and many of them do, for varying values of philosophical. That they mostly display a fairly normal range of ordinary thinking shouldn’t really surprise anybody.

  21. tigtog

    Sam, if you want to be in permanent moderation that much, I’m very tempted to oblige you.

    However, in the very faint hope that you are not just being an arsehat for the sake of vexatious arsehattery, how about a cite to back up that claim? You know, objective data?

  22. Terry

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Anthony Mundine yet. Successful at two sports, and a sports man with a lot to say. Doesn’t post on Twitter, but I wouldn’t have thought that was the main criteria here.

  23. Sam

    how about a cite to back up that claim? You know, objective data?

    Sure thing. To begin with, there’s this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonderlic_Test

    and this

    http://centraltendencies.com/2009/01/college-athletes-sat-iq-scores/

  24. Dan

    I’m sorry but Barton is a sporting thug regardless of his presence on twitter. I fail to see how tweeting non stop makes Barton worthy of being admired and inferred to be an intellectual.

  25. Tom

    @Dan I agree, but I think Guy’s idea of what Barton could be is still interesting.

    @Sam I disagree with your prejudices, but IQ doesn’t even come into play when appraising a decent response to most of the issues that face Australia.

    If ‘any idiot can see’ that we’re not being swamped by asylum seekers, that mining companies could pay more tax, and that 97% of climate scientists might be worth listening to … then let any idiot see it.

    If only the enormous social capital controlled by professional sportspeople could be put to use engaging the public with the issues and letting them draw their own conclusions as to a common sense position, it’d be a good thing.

  26. tigtog

    Sam, colour me unconvinced by tests focusing mainly on US college footballers. The pathway to those scholarships is dreadfully distorted.

    With the Wonderlic Test (of which I’ve never heard, how is it rated outside their own press releases?), the “average footballer” scored 20/50, the “average overall” was 24/50. That strikes me as footballers being right in the middle ground (with the clerical workers and bank tellers), not as being especially unintelligent.

    And SATs? Unlike other (dare I say proper?) IQ tests, the SATs have to be studied for to get good scores. Which means that when a student athlete knows that they’ve got a scholarship so long as they don’t flunk it miserably, they may well not study that hard for their SATs. Has anybody done a Catell test? A WISC?

  27. Helen

    Although I’m generally bored shitless by AFL, I always admired Cameron Ling. Recently I read he’d used his restaurant which he runs as his post-AFL career to do a Sea Shepherd benefit. Good on him, he’s definitely one to watch and strikes me as having more brane than the average AFL.

    Phil Cleary is another one. In fact I should have mentioned him first because he has quite an output now, books, articles and web posts. He is instrumental in combating and raising awareness about intimate partner violence and IP homicide. He wrote a book about his sister’s death at the hands of her ex and then at the time of the Julie Ramage case, I believe he was one of the people who helped to overturn the defence of provocation in Victoria. At least he wrote articles and helped to raise community awareness of DV. He has also contributed as an independent MLA (or MLC – I forget & too lazy to google – time to attack the evening housework!)

    So yes, I’d nominate those two.

  28. m0nty

    Former Hawthorn player Tim Boyle writes a lot of thoughtful stuff for The Age. He did law while he was playing footy, as a small number of players do (team mate Nick Holland being one). He sticks to sport in his columns mainly, though.

  29. Sam

    Tigtog, you asked for some data, which I gave you half an hour later. You didn’t ask for research that is publishable in a peer-reviewed journal. But I will happily take a LP research grant and do a proper study.

  30. jumpy

    The federal member for Bennelong ?

  31. Joe

    I’d like to see some of those fat Premier League players complain about how much money they earn, and how unfair it all is, considering that the average income in Britain is a bit more than 400 Pounds a week (compared to approx 22,000).

    @Joey7Berton: “If we keep choking the financial life out of the pay tv customers we’ll all be rooned!”

  32. Joe

    But Guy is actually 110% right about this issue, anything would be better than, “I’d like to thank the boyz for playing such a great game taday. We trained really good this week and I think that paid off…”

    But maybe we could try sending Gillard and Abbot for a 90min cardiac workout in freezing temperatures and lots of mud etc. and then ask them for some policy positions? Or maybe just Gillard and the Ruddster on a desert island? Or maybe with a couple of red kelpies, a taboggen and a map with magnetic south pole marked by a big red 80% approval rating– “the boat will be back in spring–” Maybe?

  33. Lech

    “More than 60 per cent of Australians are in favour of same-sex marriage, so it just doesn’t make sense to stop it from happening… it’s a big issue and I know there’s a lot of people who don’t share the same opinion as me. It comes down to equal love. I don’t think it’s the government’s role to tell people that their love is right or wrong.”

    http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-union/wallaby-boycotts-marriage-until-gays-have-same-right-20111126-1o0b0.html#ixzz1lamcePuM

    From that bastion of progressive thinking, Rugby Union. Pocock also has the added advantage over Barton of not being a complete thug.

  34. Chris

    Joe @ 35 – I’m sure that Abbott would love to be able to yell “physical challenge” in parliament if he was allowed to!

  35. tigtog

    @Sam, you gave me data which shows that some US college athletes are slightly below average scores in two testing systems which are not especially good correlators for I.Q. Unless you have a particularly harsh view of the middle quintile of the human population, these scores do not support your claim that athletes are exceedingly low in intelligence.

    Are you going to equivocate further now on what you meant? Or are you going to admit that your statement was prejudice rather than “objective fact”?

  36. Sam

    @tigtog, quite a lot below average actually, given the distribution of IQ around the mean.

    But while this is germane to the topic, it isn’t the topic. The argument that we should be interested in the opinions of sportspeople because people listen to them, which is the topic, is doubly dubious. It is an appeal to authority, which is bad enough, but even worse, sportspeople are not even authorities.

    So Cameron Ling opposes the Japanese killing whales. Great. So do I. But Ling has no special claim for his opinion to carry any more weight than anyone else in the general population.

  37. Joe

    Christ, that would totally fit the times! For people who need a reminder: +

  38. Joe

    Oh, whoops, bit of a strange typo crept into the last comment– an immaculate “t”, that should be Chris, off course.

  39. tigtog

    @tigtog, quite a lot below average actually, given the distribution of IQ around the mean.

    Both results are well within 1 standard deviation from the mean, on tests which are alleged to correlate approx 70% and 80% with “standard IQ tests” (but they don’t say which ones) and most IQ tests are well known to be biased towards verbal fluency, which is not the only sort of intelligence anyway.

    I agree however with your other point. Of course elite athletes have had a bully pulpit handed to them, and people with causes to share hate to see bully pulpits being under-utilised, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone standing in front of a bully pulpit should use it just because it’s there.

  40. Joe

    Hey guy,

    that’s an interesting point. But I think that where it falls down is expecting that sport people take an active role in being political– or rather, manufacturing this facet of their being. Being innately political, I think, isn’t really enough and we have plenty of opinion writers already. I’m thinking, in particular of the politicization of Hollywood, which I’m not really a big fan of.

  41. Fran Barlow

    Personally, I find the whole idea that elite sportsfolk should be accorded any different respect from the anonymous person in the car beside you in the traffic simply another manifestation of the fundamentally inegalitarian world in which we live. While it’s obviously nice if they take the time to avow reason and equity in some coherent way, as an egalitarian, and thus someone who rejects the notion of ‘the hero’, I always find myself feeling just a tad troubled about how much I should celebrate their conduct.

    While I don’t endorse Sam’s sweeping generalisation about the cognitive acumen of sportsfolk, I suspect that at least some of the heat they get over this is a perverse instantiation of egalitarianism, or else a desire to self-affirm.

    There are almost certainly commercial reasons (plus a cultural selection bias) operating to predispose against elite sportsfolk showing insight into the world and issues of social justice in public. I don’t agree that we need to make inferences about their potential for cognitive accomplishment to explain that.

  42. wilful
  43. Sam

    There are almost certainly commercial reasons

    Well, of course, this is the point. If you’re advertising shampoo to people who might be inclined to buy it because you’ve got a splendid cover drive, you don’t want to piss off 50% of your market by giving a political opinion they don’t like.

    But also, while everyone who reads and writes for this blog thinks about politics, the state of the world and injustices of various kinds 24/7, the dirty little secret is that most people don’t. If they like to watch cricket in their leisure time, they are interested in how Michael Clarke performs as a cricketer. They neither know nor care what he thinks about mining taxes, the Arab Spring, IVF for lesbians or the Republican primaries.

  44. Fran Barlow

    Being innately political, I think, isn’t really enough

    or even possible … Politics is experiential.

  45. Occam's Blunt Razor

    If you were an elite athlete – why would you take the risk? Look at what happened to Stephanie Rice.

    Cadel Evans makes a few notable comments.

    Fitzsimons made the transition but only after playing.

  46. Alex

    I love sport and still play cricket at a high level, yet cringe when sportspeople are put up as role models. Most elite sportspeople are by nature single minded and selfish – face it, people don’t make it to elite level by being egalitarian and inclusive 🙂

    In other words I challenge the notion that the personal qualities required to be elite at sports are qualities that make a good person.

    Back on topic, I think Ian Chappell might qualify. During his playing days he was an outspoken critic of ‘the establishment’ and what he deemed an inequitable payment structure for players. More recently he’s spoken out about the treatment of asylum seekers.

  47. wilful

    Andrew Demetriou, not sure if he qualifies more as a sportsperson (he played 103 games for the shinboners) or a big business person in sport, but he is clearly willing to put his views on social matters out there – he’s taken a stand against Howard on drugs/privacy, and on racism in the AFL.

  48. Fran Barlow

    Just so Alex

    About the time of the Tiger Woods scandal a friend of mine professed incredulity.

    He could have had it made for the rest of his life, he said. He had more money that any of us could spen in a hundred lifetimes. Didn’t he figure that if he carried on like that, eventually he’d either be paying blackmailers or reading about it in the press? He’s got to be brainless, surely?

    I don’t think Tiger Woods is ‘brainless’ in the senses one usually hears the term, but there is something about the culture of being a celebrity that is seriously corrosive of good judgement. One might also add that it takes a special kind of narcissistic fixation on one’s own actual and potential accomplishment to be the best at almost any endeavour in the world. Woods had probably done little in his life but play golf and was probably ill-used as an adult to hearing people say no. He probably fancied that he was some sort of living breathing god. The word ‘hero’ derives from connection to the gods. The boss class persistently manufactures gods to serve its economic interests but it works as cultural form precisely because the vast majority of the world is relatively powerless.

    One can feel sorry at one level for ‘heroes’. While they live like gods they remain ever the cultural slaves of the class that invented them, and never more than a couple of steps from being cast aside and humiliated. Your average folk are never given the scope to mess up on the scale that ‘heroes’ can, and their flaws are of almost no interest to anyone outside their small circles and in many cases will go unnoticed. Most perversely, the ‘heroes’ only get their power as a result of processes that make it unlikely that they will have the insight to use it rationally in the service of a better world. Those who might use it so rarely get the chance.

  49. Sam
  50. Sam

    Oops

  51. PeterF

    I’m ambivalent as to whether it would be a good or bad thing if sportspeople were more outspoken in their political involvement; I certainly think it might be persuasive in the way that musicians crusading for political causes have influence. Yet it also reinforces the notion that having status because of one’s physical prowess makes that person’s opinion more valuable. That said by some-one very interested in sports!

    I thought of Harry O’Brien also (as well as Michael Long and Nicky Winmar), but there is a recent retiree from Collingwood, Shane Wakelin, who was quite engaged in environmental issues. He had disposed of his car and used to travel to matches and training using public transport, and he also worked with an environmental organisation – which I believe has continued since he stopped playing a couple of years ago.

    Jim Stynes (sadly wracked with cancer, atm) is another obvious case who has been working with “troubled” youth for many years, dating back to his distant playing days.

    Mark Bolton, who played at Essendon established a soup kitchen and involved other players from his own and other clubs in the activity.

    There’s a blast from the very distant past and a gesture to the northern state codes. There were four Rugby internationals who had their eyes opened on a late 1960s tour of South Africa, and began campaigining against apartheid and sporting links with South Africa. The only name I can recall is Paul Darveniza, but they paid the price of having their cards marked by a very unforgiving sporting establishment of that era.
    There were others who became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and were particularly active at the time of the 1971 Springbok tour.

  52. Alphonse
  53. wilful

    More on Pocock

    Being brought up in a Christian home and still identifying as Christian, I get pretty annoyed with the Christian lobbies around the world who say gay marriage destroys families and all that kind of rubbish.

    “They claim to follow someone who always stood up for the oppressed and marginalised.

    “I guess it is a fear of the unknown – if you talk to someone who doesn’t like gay people you can almost guarantee that they don’t know too many.

    “These are the prejudices that you have to challenge and break down. Emma and I decided not to get legally married until our gay friends could do the same.”

    Pocock helped start EightyTwentyVision, a charity that funds small self-help projects in Nkayi, a town in Zimbabwe.

    “When you talk about poverty and ways to try to make a difference it often seems like big changes and grand schemes and all the rest,” he says in a promotional video on the charity’s website.

    “But the littlest thing, renovating a small [clinic’s] waiting room and putting in some rickety old beds that women can actually sleep on, increases the births at the clinic from 18 in the entire year to 18 in the first month of renovation.

    “That was really exciting to see, how much difference you could make with a small, concerted effort.”

    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-union/rugby-world-cup/david-pocock-a-colossus-on-the-field-and-his-own-man-off-it-20111014-1lo14.html#ixzz1lrBJZdCs

    And this article.

    Definitely the Wallabies next captain.