Champion boxer Tyson Fury has found himself embroiled in a row over his credentials as a ‘Sports Personality of the Year’. Lee Williscroft-Ferris examines the case for his removal from the shortlist.
When it comes to ‘BBC Sports Personality of the Year’, I’m with Patsy Stone – it’s a ‘contradiction in terms’. As someone who tried every trick in the book to avoid PE lessons at school, I really couldn’t be less interested.
In many ways, the whole concept of SPOTY seems slightly bizarre to me. Personally, I see no reason to hold sportspeople up as role models simply because are more athletically able than most members of the population. That said, I accept I am in the minority on that point.
The recent ruckus around Tyson Fury’s nomination to this year’s shortlist has provided an ideal example of the dilemma at the heart of the issue of adulation of celebrities in general, and athletes specifically. To provide some context, Fury is known for his controversial statements about women, homosexuality and abortion. In an interview with the Daily Mail published on 9th November, Fury had the following to say;
“There are only three things that need to be accomplished before the Devil comes home. One of them is homosexuality being legal in countries, one of them is abortion and the other is paedophilia. So who would have thought in the 50s and early 60s that those first two would be legalised. … For me, people can say ‘oh, you’re against abortions and you’re against paedophilia, you’re against homosexuality, you’re against whatever’ but my faith and my culture is all based on the Bible. The Bible was written a long time ago, wasn’t it, from the beginning of time until now so if I follow that and that tells me it’s wrong, then it’s wrong for me.”
Despite the wholly predictable ensuing furore, Fury – who has developed an excruciatingly irritating habit of talking about himself in the third person – courted further controversy with comments made in the aftermath of his victory over Wladimir Klitschko in Germany; “I’m not sexist. I believe a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back. That’s my personal belief. Making me a good cup of tea, that’s what I believe.”
Of course, Fury’s views are well rehearsed. In 2013, he told an interviewer that he would hang his own sister if she was promiscuous. That same year he was fined £3,000 for mocking fellow boxers David Price and Tony Bellew, naming them ‘gay lovers’. Fury, a practicing Catholic of Irish Traveller heritage, has consistently argued that his views have been formed by his religious convictions and his cultural background. Thus, the inevitable questions arise around the compatibility of the ideals of social equality with divergent beliefs and culturally enforced ‘moral codes’.
Of course, Fury’s views are well rehearsed. In 2013, he told an interviewer that he would hang his own sister if she was promiscuous.
On the subject of homosexuality specifically, it seems only logical to first of all dispense with the myth that gay people do not exist outside the realm of liberal west. We all know this is not the case. It is merely stating the obvious to emphasise that the only difference between a gay man in London and his counterpart in Lagos is the oceanic gap in the social and legislative progress made. In citing his religious and cultural grounding as an excuse for his prejudice, Fury is implicitly denying the existence of gay Irish Travellers, echoing ex-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s much derided 2012 claim that gay Iranians ‘do not exist’. For this reason alone, the public is justified in its disquiet at Fury’s nomination for SPOTY.
But what implications does this have for cultural relativism in general? To my mind, an individual’s religious and cultural background might go some way to explaining their viewpoint on issues of morality and equality. However, this does not lend such prejudice any degree of inevitability or acceptability. This is problematic for western liberals in that it necessitates a willingness to critique, and indeed challenge, notions that promote discrimination and inequality while championing the inalienable human right to freedom of thought and expression.
It is merely stating the obvious to emphasise that the only difference between a gay man in London and his counterpart in Lagos is the oceanic gap in the social and legislative progress made.
Freedom of speech is something of a Pandora’s box. All too often, those that seek to deploy it as a justification for their expressions of bigotry are strangely reluctant to grant their critics the same privilege. Fury himself has been quoted as saying that his critics could ‘suck my balls’. In short, freedom of speech is a tool of self-serving expediency to those who would deny others of their human dignity. To those who dare to challenge such individuals, freedom of speech also represents the right to criticise those who cause deliberate hurt to others. It’s not rocket science. It’s how social debate occurs and ultimately, how progress is made.
The bottom line is this: exercising your right to freedom of speech is a tacit acknowledgement that there may be repercussions as a result. In Fury’s case, this could – and, in my opinion, should – mean the boxer’s disqualification from the SPOTY shortlist. The degrading sexist remarks he has made about fellow nominee, Jessica Ennis-Hill (‘she slaps up good’) surely make his position alongside the other candidates untenable. Olympic athlete and SPOTY nominee, Greg Rutherford, even threatened to withdraw from the contest in disgust at Fury’s bile.
In short, freedom of speech is a tool of self-serving expediency to those who would deny others of their human dignity.
Far from retracting his comments and seeking to repair the damage done, Fury’s unrepentant response has oscillated between Biblical justification and pseudo-trolling of Rutherford on Twitter. Freedom of speech means that Fury can express his view that women are inferior and that the legalisation of homosexual acts is a staging post on the Devil’s journey ‘home’. This doesn’t mean the BBC shouldn’t seriously reconsider the man’s placement on a pedestal, particularly at a time when professional sport remains one key area of life in which LGBTQ+ participation and visibility remain stubbornly minimal.
Tyson Fury’s cultural and religious background are effectively irrelevant. His anti-gay, anti-women rhetoric is shared neither by all Roman Catholics nor by all members of the Irish Traveller community. Similarly, such bigotry is transparently not exclusive to either of these groups. All bigots believe they have reasonable grounds for their repugnance for others, whatever their heritage and belief system. If you truly believe in universal human equality and dignity, there can be no grounds for such proclivities. There is an inherent irony in the lamentable fact that many – both on social media and in the right-wing press – have indulged in vacuous classism, exploiting Fury’s predicament to make phobic generalisations about travellers in general.
This doesn’t mean the BBC shouldn’t seriously reconsider the man’s placement on a pedestal, particularly at a time when professional sport remains one key area of life in which LGBTQ+ participation and visibility remain stubbornly minimal.
You can choose to remove malignant forces from your life. You can block those whose views you find offensive on social media. You can be fired for being outspokenly misogynistic or homophobic in the workplace, just as a landlord can remove you from their pub for spouting racism when under the influence. The fact that Tyson Fury claims his vile utterances are influenced by God or his cultural heritage is immaterial. To create a scenario whereby Fury could be set above a plethora of fellow sportspeople, many of whom have made positive contributions to combatting prejudice and, crucially, one of whom he has publicly degraded, is implausible.
Is Tyson Fury an outstanding boxer? No doubt. Does one’s status as a sporting role model negate a spectrum of social and moral standpoints? Absolutely not. However, how you choose to utilise your human right to express your views means you accept that the world at large may choose to stop listening.
Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)