Joey Barton’s crass stupidity may well have cost him his playing career but he deserves gratitude for posing awkward questions of football and its relationship to betting firms.
Very often when the subject of his often thuggish and indefensible behaviour both on and off the pitch arises, it will be mentioned in mitigation of Joey Barton how intelligent and articulate he shows himself to be. How then to explain the underlying stupidity behind his 18-month suspension for contravening the FA’s rules on betting over a period of 10 years? A suspension that, at 34, may well cost him what is left of his playing career.
Any temptation to feel a twinge of sympathy for Barton must be tempered by the simple urge to cry “what on earth was he thinking?” Over a 10-year period he struck a total of 1,260 bets on football. That included 20 matches which included his own team, two in which he was involved as a player. How did it never occur to him that he was dicing with his career by doing so? How could he be so reckless and dumb?
One strange aspect of the entire business was how long it took to unfold. There was no attempt by Barton to conceal. The account with which the bets were placed was in his real name and using his home address. Yet, it wasn’t until late last year that the bookmaker, who would have agreements in place with sporting bodies, alerted the FA and the disciplinary process swung into gear. Finally twigged after a 10-year spree? How unlucky was that?
In fact, Joey Barton was transparent about his betting almost to the point of taunting. In 2011, following a series of tweets in which he’d tipped certain teams and hinted at certain bets, the FA wrote him a letter warning of the consequences of falling foul of its rules on betting. Far from registering the severity of it, Barton appeared to laugh it off. “So out of touch with reality it’s untrue,” he tweeted in response.
The reality was that Joey Barton was vaguely aware of the rules, vaguely aware of his responsibilities towards them. He proceeded with the casual abandon of one who never imagines they will get caught. What was all the fuss about anyway? It was just a few harmless bets. He wasn’t fixing matches or in any way attempting to do so. “What difference does my opinion on the outcome of a match have on the result?” he moaned, before suggesting the FA’s letter had been tossed into the bin. He didn’t get it and was totally incapable of getting it.
And having been forewarned and made aware of the strict ban on football betting, it is impossible to see Barton now as anything other than the architect of his own downfall. It is true that an 18 month ban seems fairly draconian for a case in which there was clearly no attempt at fixing or gaining an improper edge. On those occasions he bet his own team to lose, he claims it was done out of spite at being dropped and, knowing his nature, that is easy enough to believe. The integrity of those games wasn’t compromised.
And yet, Barton’s pleas in mitigation aren’t entirely convincing. Pleading only a vague awareness of the regulations is neither here nor there, for instance. Pleading ignorance cut no ice for Maria Sharapova when she was seeking a reduction in her ban for taking a banned substance two years ago. Ignorance is certainly no defence when you have been warned about your behaviour on at least one prior occasion. And certainly not when you are a veteran deep in the autumn of your career.
Nor do the anguished cries of the addicted gambler significantly help his case. Barton simply couldn’t help himself, he claims. He was addicted to betting, couldn’t live without his regular fix and had sought help in trying to counter it. Yet, he had placed a total of 15,000 bets in the relevant period and less than 10 per cent involved football. He could have avoided football completely while remaining free to feed his habit on other sports as much as he wanted and thus breaking no rules.
Where he made compelling reading in his statement was in the part which deals with the FA’s wider relationship with the gambling industry. “I think if the FA is truly serious about tackling the culture of gambling in football,” Barton wrote, “it needs to look at its own dependence on the gambling companies, their role in football and in sports broadcasting, rather than just blaming the players who place a bet.”
Whatever his culpability, it seems hard to disagree vehemently with this. In an age when relentless Premier League hype comes hand in hand with a range of diverse celebrities, not all Z list, repeatedly shouting the odds during ad breaks, trying to convince you that it’s just not the same if you don’t have a bet on it, it does seem a little bit rich for sporting bodies to place such a heavy burden on their members, many of them quite young and impressionable, when it seems to shirk any sense of it themselves.
In the published reasoned decision outlining Barton’s 18-month ban, there is much talk about “perception” as to the rationale behind the severity of the punishment. On this basis, it didn’t matter that Barton had no particular insider knowledge when betting on his own team to either win or lose. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t intentionally seeking to gain an unfair advantage on bookmakers and other punters. It’s the perception that counts, a nuance he could not adequately challenge.
But the question of perception surely cuts both ways. What kind of perception does it create, for example, when a sporting body lays down the gambling laws to players and coaches while it itself cosies up to gambling firms and allows a culture to spread in which more than half the teams in its top tier wear the logos of those firms on their shirts? Why are tobacco and alcohol firms shunned while the red carpet is wheeled out for the bookies? Joey Barton rightly asks these questions and more.
For all the advances football clubs have made over the years, bright modern stadiums and glistening academies, certain things about a young footballer’s life remain constant. After training, there are still several hours of the day to be filled in, boredom is a constant menace and there is rarely a bookies office far from the training ground to help. Young players have always been particularly vulnerable and, given the culture Barton so capably describes, probably more so now than ever.
Andros Townsend, now at Crystal Palace, was one of those who fell prey to the temptation while a Spurs player four years ago. “It all started while watching games in my hotel room,” Townsend explained later. “I was bored and there were TV ads promoting bets you could have on the matches I was watching.” A familiar story. He was fined £18,000 and banned for four months, three of them suspended.
Of course, grown-up players should know the rules and suffer the consequences for breaking them, but why does the game risk escalating temptations that already exist? It makes no sense when you think of the huge swathes of money funnelling into football through television rights fees. Unlike other sports, football is not dependent on gambling firms for sponsorship money. The top teams do not need it and the teams lower down wouldn’t need it if there was a more equitable dispersal of the television money. It is greed. Pure and simple. Nothing more or less than that.
“But surely they need to accept there is a huge clash between their rules and the culture that surrounds the modern game,” Barton writes, “where anyone who watches football on TV or in the stadia is bombarded by marketing, advertising and sponsorship by betting companies, and where much of the coverage now on Sky, for example, is intertwined with the broadcasters’ own gambling interests.”
In all his playing career, it is a safe bet that Joey Barton never struck the target more clearly than that.