Joey Barton, the bad boy of English soccer, is on the line from Marseille, and I'm trying to figure out when we left sports behind and went down this path, when a planned 10-minute interview turned into an hour, when the conversation veered from talk about his French soccer rebirth to Barton volunteering his interests in writers Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Malcolm Gladwell, in high-brow documentary films (Inside Job, Waiting For Superman, The Fog of War) and in, of all things, Naomi Wolf's book The End of America.
"There are a lot of arguments she puts forward that you have to consider," Barton said, "when you talk about Blackwater and this 'policing within policing,' this privatized force."
I swear, I'm not making this up.
Actually, truth be told, I'm responsible for this. I'm the one who asked Barton the question: What are your thoughts on the United States as a country? And for the next 34 minutes the Liverpool-bred Barton earnestly answered.
"I have a lot of friends who are quite forward-thinking Americans," he began. "It's going to sound bad, this, but everyone thinks America is the greatest country in the world, and I don't."
Why should you care what Joey Barton thinks? On the one hand, here's a 30-year-old English soccer player who spent time in prison in 2008 for an assault conviction, who battled alcoholism and who earned a 12-game suspension, the longest in English history, for attempting to trigger a melee in the English Premier League finale last season between his Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City.
On the other hand, here's a 10-year Premier League veteran, an effective box-to-box midfielder whose rehabilitation had appeared close to complete in early 2012, when Barton had gone six seasons with no more than a single red card. What's more, Barton was interesting, building a Twitter following that has swelled to nearly 1.8 million and starting his own website that includes his takes on anything and everything in the wider world.
"People like to knock me down: You're a f---in' footballer, what right do you have to say anything?" Barton said. "But on the flip side, when sportsmen are communicating, they're just communicating corporate blandness. Use your profile, use your celebrity to talk about issues that are relevant. In the whole scheme of things, who really gives a s--- about sports brands? That's not important. What's important is using your voice to let people know it's OK to have an opinion. I'm not telling everyone to follow my opinion, but it's good to ask questions about the world around you."
Whether or not you agree with Barton's stances, if you listen to him for an hour you'll understand that he is 1) well-read for a professional athlete, and 2) the rare jock these days who isn't afraid to express his opinions in the political realm. (It's so uncommon that SI's Gary Smith wrote a story earlier this year titled Why Don't More Athletes Take a Stand?)
Yet even Barton would agree that he has hurt his credibility over the years with his antics, including the meltdown against Manchester City in May. "You try and block it from your mind," he said of that day. "It was such a bad smear on your CV, really. It's not something I dwell on. You try and learn a lesson from it, but it wasn't a great day at the office, 30 seconds of madness, and unfortunately for me that's going to be with me the rest of my career."
Barton hit a crossroads early last summer. "I became a bit pissed off at football, if I'm being honest," he said. "I was in two minds. I was really upset at the way I behaved, and I was thinking, Do I need to put myself through this anymore? I'm in a good financial position after a 10-year career in the English Premier League. My passion for the game had sort of dissipated."
Eventually, QPR loaned Barton for the season to Marseille, the historic French club that was one of the last places anyone would have imagined the very English Barton going to a couple years ago. "I don't think I would have either," he said with a laugh. But the fish-out-of-water story has turned into a great fit from the moment Marseille fans welcomed Barton with a giant banner reading (in English) WELCOME, SWEET AND TENDER HOOLIGAN.
"I was touched," he said. "It's very similar to the place I grew up in. Marseille and Liverpool are both major ports, and there are similarities in terms of the economic and social situations. I really get it. Even though I don't speak the language, it just felt right. ... Football and life, there's no difference between the two in Marseille and Liverpool. In Paris and London, life and football are two separate things."
With Marseille, Barton has started to embrace a new position, defensive midfielder, and he has done well in four Europa League games, including scoring a goal directly off a corner kick against Borussia Moenchengladbach last week. After completing his 12-game suspension, he'll be able to play in his first French league game for Marseille on Nov. 25 against Lille. Barton's addition comes at an ideal time for the club, which is tied for the most points in Ligue 1 with Paris-Saint Germain (and has a game in hand).
"When the fans love me, I've always done well," Barton said. "I did really well at Newcastle, and as a player it's important to have that connection. I've realized how important it is to be wanted by the club I play for."
It's fair to say that Barton's political views are decidedly pro-working class and firmly located on the left, to the point where he's critical not just of the George W. Bush administration (whose officials he thinks should be "tried for war crimes") but of President Obama as well. "I'm looking at Obama saying there's a guy who could change the world," Barton said. "He excited all of us, really energized us, and four years down the line he's been a disappointment."
Barton isn't under any illusions when he questions the U.S. government. "I know it sounds dangerous for a sportsman to be saying it, especially for someone who wants to come one day and play in the MLS," he said. But he also doesn't hold back.
A sampling of Barton's opinions:
• "The war issue is massive for me, the invasion of Iraq and subsequently what we know about it. Our [British] government is partly responsible too. They still haven't found the evidence of weapons of mass destructions in Iraq, and it totally destabilized the country and the region."
• "A lot of hard-working Americans have had their pension funds taken from them and their plans for the future totally destabilized. These people have worked all their lives, but these bankers just came in and obliterated the system."
• "How can you say it's not OK to be gay?"
• "I'm a meritocrat. I do believe in how hard you work, but surely the point of America was if you come to America and work hard you can make anything of yourself. It doesn't seem that way anymore. It seems like more of a closed shop."
• "I've got a lot of American friends and love lots of things about America. I love American sports, and I love the fact you celebrate winners. We don't do it in England so well. If anything, we sort of knock it down. But I feel America also has a dark and devious side to it."
All things considered, I wasn't expecting my conversation with Joey Barton to take this sort of turn. And while plenty of Americans will no doubt find Barton annoying, there will also be plenty who find his candor refreshing in an increasingly packaged sports world.