Joey Barton’s got a brain: why the surprise?

The QPR man's turn on Question Time gave the lie to the prejudice that all footballers are stupid.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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The sporting highlight of the week, without a doubt, was Joey Barton’s debut on the BBC’s weekly political debate show, Question Time. It was television gold. No one quite knew what to expect from the hotheaded, opinionated QPR midfielder. Would the man, billed by host David Dimbleby as ‘football’s philosopher king’, charm the audience with his cheeky Scouse wit or square up to Piers Morgan? In the event, Barton did lunge in two-footed, figuratively speaking, not at Piers Morgan but at UKIP MEP Louise Bours. However, in tearing into UKIP, Barton collected an unnecessary yellow card for a clumsy analogy about ugly women.

All in all, Barton was eloquent, passionate and opinionated. Nothing he said was particularly remarkable – much of it was bog-standard Guardian-by-numbers stuff. However, it was his Swiss Toni moment that generated all the headlines. In making the point that UKIP were the best of a bad bunch, Barton attempted to execute an ill-judged metaphor about the election being a choice ‘between four really ugly girls’. The audience groaned. Twitter went ballistic over this infringement of gender etiquette. Louise Bours retaliated with a studs-up challenge of her own, declaring that ‘footballers’ brains are in their feet’. As sexist remarks go, Barton’s comments were pretty innocuous. It’s more symptomatic of a society that has become dangerously thin-skinned than it is a sign of rampant misogyny.

The reaction to Barton’s faux pas also reveals a double standard at play when it comes to prejudice. A supposedly sexist metaphor is deemed worthy of a public apology, whereas sneering about the intellectual shortcomings of a working-class sportsman is perfectly acceptable.

Barton’s billing as ‘football’s philosopher king’ was clearly tongue in cheek. The player is studying for a philosophy degree and is well known for his outspoken views on Twitter. However, the unlikely fusion of football and philosophy taps into a longstanding preoccupation in Britain. Older readers might recall a famous Monty Python sketch featuring a football match between famous German and Greek philosophers (‘Nietzsche has just been booked for arguing with the referee’).

The mythical philosopher-footballer is revered by football hipsters, a new breed of middle-class fans who are at once attracted to the ‘people’s game’ while, at the same time, are repulsed by the uncouth ‘people’. Hipsters despair that most footballers are semi-literate and uncultured. They want their football heroes to say clever, intellectual stuff about seagulls and trawlers. The hipster’s idealised self-image is the kung-fu kicking footballer-turned-actor (but not in a Vinnie Jones way), Eric Cantona. They love Socrates, the bearded, hard-drinking, left-leaning former Brazil captain and idolise Albert Camus, who was not only a writer and philosopher but also a promising goalkeeper in Algeria. Camus’s quote about morality and football is immortalised in a t-shirt produced by Philosophy Football, the clothing brand founded by former Marxism Today contributor Mark Perryman, which unashamedly caters for fans who prefer their footballers to be erudite.

Why are we so obsessed with the intellectual capabilities of our footballers? You don’t need any academic qualifications to play football. As Julie Burchill put it in her polemical essay, On Beckham: ‘We don’t expect our intellectuals to be great footballers, but for some reason we expect our great footballers to be intellectuals.’ Burchill’s pamphlet takes a swipe at the snobbery that underpins the merciless mockery of Beckham for his perceived stupidity. And she’s right. Scratch the surface of the ridicule heaped on Becks and you’ll find green-eyed resentment that an ill-educated pleb became so filthy rich. The same prejudice animates the lionisation of the philosopher footballer. He is the exception that proves the rule that footballers are generally dumb philistines.

Even the positive reactions to Joey Barton’s appearance on Question Time betray a condescending note of surprise that a footballer could actually string a few sentences together about politics. As historian Tim Stanley admitted in his Telegraph blog: ‘To be honest, I was poised to write “why did BBCQT invite a dumb footballer onto the panel when Roger Scruton is sitting at home waiting for an invite to arrive by telegram?” But Joey was pretty eloquent on Chilcot, on Heathrow’s runaway runways, and on UKIP.’

Joey Barton’s appearance on Question Time has shown that he’s smart, thoughtful and articulate. However, his ‘bad boy’ reputation – Barton served 74 days in prison for assault – probably means that he will never be admitted to the pantheon of philosopher footballers alongside Camus, Cantona and Socrates. What does set him apart from other footballers isn’t his intellect but his willingness to speak his mind and his curiosity. While there’s no shortage of footballers on Twitter, few have anything interesting or controversial to say. Barton, though, is one of the few footballers worth following on Twitter. He isn’t afraid to shoot from the hip, which is refreshing in an age of media-managed blandness. He’s also prepared to step outside his comfort zone and open himself up to new ideas and experiences, whether that’s spending a season at Marseille, listening to the Smiths, visiting art galleries or studying philosophy. He’s certainly no philosopher king, but I’ll settle for what he is: a gobby, Scouse upstart with strong opinions and an inquiring mind.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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