Tom English: Barton must practice what he preaches

Joey Barton is ambassador for a good cause but is not untainted by the attitude that he is campaigning against. Picture: Getty
Joey Barton is ambassador for a good cause but is not untainted by the attitude that he is campaigning against. Picture: Getty
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ACROSS the 134 senior football clubs in Scotland and England there are about approximately 5,000 professional and semi-professional footballers and, as we know, not a single one of them is openly gay.

It takes some kind of boffin – a boffin’s boffin, a boffinator – to work out the odds on there being no homosexual player in the Scottish and English leagues and luckily we have found one.

The bookmaking chain, Paddy Power, have crunched the numbers for us. They reckon the chances of there being no gay footballer in these 134 clubs is 1 in 2.29 x 10^134. To be honest, I don’t have any idea what any of that means, so they explained it further. In technical terms, it’s over a quadragintillion, apparently. Up until two minutes ago, I had no clue that the word quadragintillion even existed. So in layman’s language, what are the chances of there being no gay player in senior British football? About the same odds on one of us predicting the correct score in 150 consecutive matches. In other words, virtually no chance at all.

Stonewall, the gay rights charity, has teamed up with Paddy Power and is campaigning on this issue. At the start of last week they distributed boxes of rainbow laces to every senior club in the British game, from Liverpool at the top of the Premiership to Queen’s Park at the foot of Scottish League Two. The idea is that every player could swap his traditional bootlaces for the rainbow ones in a show of support for those who are trying to eradicate anti-gay abuse in football. The players would be sending out a message. Football fans tend to be one-eyed when watching their team, but even one good eye would be able to pick out those multi-coloured laces. This initiative wouldn’t change the world, but might spark awareness and, for Stonewall, that would be job done.

The thought is a good one, but something about all of this makes you feel a little uneasy. For instance, the poster boy for the campaign is Joey Barton. He’s the ambassador, the one pictured on the literature tying his boots with his rainbow laces, the one player who has already worn them in a number of matches for Queens Park Rangers. In some ways, Barton was an obvious choice. He is high-profile, he’s articulate, he speaks his mind and he has a vast audience. Barton is followed by 2.3 million people on Twitter. His is a powerful voice, but he’s also a tainted voice.

We could be here for half the night documenting Barton’s unsavoury behaviour over the years but the one example that’s most relevant to his new status as campaigner in the anti-gay abuse struggle is actually the most recent one. When on loan at Marseille last season, Barton was criticised for calling the Paris Saint-Germain defender, Thiago Silva, an “overweight ladyboy” and a “transsexual” on Twitter. He tweeted a question to the Brazilian: “Are you Pre-Op or Post-Op?” And another tweet: “Baffles me, which way is he going. Is he a man changing to a woman or a woman changing to a man? Can’t work it out.” What did he mean? Was the Brazilian not manly enough for Barton? Was he a bit of a girl? Was he, perish the thought, a touch gay in the way he looked and behaved?

This is precisely the kind of language that Stonewall rails against. Hurtful words dressed up as banter. Barton was condemned by gay activists, slammed by PSG and told to shut up by his employers, Marseille. He was brought up on a charge by the National Ethics Committee and received a suspended two-match ban. “The remarks he made towards Thiago Silva were not homophobic remarks, they were just out of place,” concluded Laurent Davenas, president of the ethics body.

It should be recalled that Barton came in for flak for what was described as an “obscene gesture” at Fernando Torres in 2010, when Barton’s Newcastle were playing Torres’ Liverpool. He was not punished, but Newcastle said they would talk to him about what he did – and allegedly said – to Torres.

Stonewall might point to Barton’s involvement in documentaries that have campaigned on behalf of gay footballers and it would be right. He was spoken out more than most. He has been unequivocal in his support, but then he goes and abuses Thiago Silva and you get to wondering what kind of an ambassador is he really? Stonewall will be of the view that this campaign has already been a success, that people are talking about it, that some players yesterday will have worn their laces and that, last night, Gary Lineker, was due to wear the laces on Match of the Day. That’s all very visible and all very positive.

The trouble is that the campaign smacks too much of opportunism and a drive for cheap publicity. The reason that most clubs in England and Scotland have not embraced the initiative is because it was dropped on their doorstep like a ticking bomb. Endorse or else…

There was no consultation with clubs, no attempt to have a concerted effort to get as many high-profile players as possible wearing the laces. The boxes arrived at each club early in the week and that was the first that most of them had heard about the laces. Piara Powar, one of football’s leading anti-discrimination advisers, said that it seems like “product placement has been latched on to a social cause.” He was referring to Paddy Power’s involvement. “The campaign is making some people very uncomfortable,” he added.

No wonder. “Paddy Power: Right Behind Gay Footballers” is the headline slogan of the campaign. “It has sexual innuendo, is clumsy and some people in the gay community are very offended,” said Powar the other day.

The language rather reinforces the stereotype. Like some of the past antics of the man they chose to front the initiative, the words are a little crass and a tad grubby. Stonewall reckons the end justifies the means, that a public conversation has happened on the back of Barton’s involvement, the laces and the words of the slogan and that that can only be a helpful thing. All publicity is good publicity seems to be the mantra. That’s the Paddy Power creed, for sure.

Right about now might be a decent time for Barton to apologise to Thiago Silva, though.

Good on him if he wants to be an ambassador in this campaign, but it would be a reasonable idea to start acting like one.