I'm not sure that the controversy surrounding the Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton could have happened anywhere else in the world. Only in England would Barton be rated a good enough player to be earning an incredible $140,000 a week, only in England would the coaches and clubs have put up with his incredibly violent anti-social behavior.
Only in England -- because Barton is your typical get-stuck-in player, the "hard-nosed" tackler who "takes no prisoners," who "lets his opponents know he's there", the snarling midfield Rottweiler type that represents -- and you can make the decision -- the glory of English soccer or its shame.
Barton has just come out of jail for an assault he committed on a teenager in Liverpool in December 2007. Nothing to do with soccer. There is a video of the assault. It is chilling, frightening.
One man who would not have been surprised at Barton's seemingly uncontrolled rage was Frenchman Ousmane Dabo, who in May 2007 was a teammate of Barton's at Manchester City. An altercation during a practice session ended with Barton attacking Dabo, knocking him unconscious, and piling on the punches as team-mates tried to drag him off. Dabo was hospitalized for injuries to his eye, nose and lip -- he said his "face looked like Elephant man." Dabo decided to sue Barton.
Barton had already a history for being involved in "incidents." At a ManCity Christmas party in 2004 he had stubbed a lighted cigar into the eye of a youth player. He had been sent home from the club's 2005 preseason tour after assaulting a 15-year-old fan in Thailand.
Earlier this year, Barton's violence faced judgment day in the courts. In May he pleaded guilty to the Liverpool assault and was sentenced to 6 months in jail. At the beginning of July, Barton was again in court, and again he admitted the charge -- of assaulting Dabo. This time the judge surprisingly let him off -- and Barton got only a suspended sentence of four months.
Then, having served only two months of his jail term, Barton was released from jail under an "early release" program. Barton went back to Newcastle to resume his pro career. Newcastle coach Kevin Keegan welcomed him back, wouldn't even consider reducing his enormous salary, and said, in effect, that the past was the past, and all was forgiven.
Compassion is a wonderful quality, and if that is what prompted Keegan's move, he deserves praise. But was it the right move?
Obviously, Dabo was disappointed, and he accused Newcastle of "lacking ethics and morals." He has a point. Many Newcastle supporters were upset, too. Because the fact is that Barton has done precisely nothing to deserve such leniency. Rather the opposite. He is a repeat offender, who has let down his sympathizers with every crime. That he needs treatment -- and, indeed, has received anger-management counseling -- is glaringly obvious.
But how does he manage to retain the respect of his fellow professionals? In February last year, Barton even managed to find himself selected to play for England -- a 15-minute sub appearance against Spain.
A week later he was in trouble again for a slyly nasty tackle from behind on Portsmouth's Pedro Mendes. I watched the replays of this incident again and again -- and there was simply no dodging the evidence. Barton had deliberately trodden on Mendes' Achilles tendon. It was calculated -- and dangerous. Mendes left the field on a stretcher.
But when the Man City coach Stuart Pearce was asked about it, he dismissed the incident, saying "I take it for granted it was unintentional ... people tried to make out that there was something disgusting about him treading on the back of another player's heel. It surprised me, it really did."
What that statement reveals -- and what Keegan's attitude less obviously says -- is that all that matters is Barton's welfare. Forget about Mendes and Dabo and the kid beaten up in Liverpool.
That is not an attitude that seems acceptable to me -- especially given Barton's long record of violent outbursts. The victims have a say here -- or more to the point, the potential victims.
So far, only the presiding magistrate has made the point -- when he remanded Barton in custody after the Liverpool assault and ruled: "I also have to consider the safety of the public."
Keegan (let it be noted that it was previous coach Sam Allardyce, not Keegan, who signed Barton) has made no such consideration.
Sadly -- almost monstrously -- it is left to equipment giants Nike to teach Newcastle a lesson. It has canceled its promotional deal with Barton, reportedly worth $80,000 a year. Said a Nike spokesman: "We have provision in all our sponsorship contracts that take into account any actions by athletes that bring the brand into disrepute. We cannot condone or accept what he did."
In other words, the ethical standards at Nike are higher than those at Newcastle United, one of England's oldest and -- until now, at any rate -- most respected clubs. A truly sad state of affairs.