IN AN ideal world, sportsmen wouldn’t make derogatory comments about women or homosexuals, or threaten interviewers. But then, in an ideal world – or at least in my ideal world – people wouldn’t pay to watch people punch each another. And several hours of Sunday night television wouldn’t be devoted to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
It is in the clash between boxing and SPOTY – the first, gritty and aggressive, the second, fluffy and respectable – that the row over Tyson Fury has its roots. So long as boxing exists, it will produce its greats and, by beating Wladimir Klitschko, Fury has joined their ranks. But can such a non-PC sport really be expected to produce champions with PC views? Can a man who grew up around bare-knuckle fighting and whose father was jailed for taking a man’s eye out in a brawl be expected to set the best example? Fury’s opinions may be repugnant, but if you bar all those who don’t conform to the standards the liberal consensus demands, won’t the competition become a celebration of social acceptability rather than physical prowess?
The problem with SPOTY is that it doesn’t seem to know what purpose it serves. Is it there to recognise great sporting achievement or is it a popularity contest more akin to I’m A Celebrity where entertainment is the name of the game and the more trouble you cause, the more likely the public is to keep you in?
Either way, there are arguments for Tyson Fury being on the shortlist. The fight with Klitschko involved both skill and showmanship and, in the weeks before and after the bout, Fury exploded on to the wider public consciousness with all the subtlety of an Exocet missile. He may not be someone most of us would warm to, but – as he bursts into song after a win or trolls Lennox Lewis – it would be hard to argue he has not made an impact on boxing or become a compelling “personality.” If we disapprove of that “personality”, then we should at least recognise it as a by-product of a sport that prides itself on baiting opponents inside and outside the ring.
Very few people outwith the Westboro Baptist Church would, I hope, condone Fury’s views on women – he has said they belong “in the kitchen or on their backs” – or the way he linked homosexuality and abortion with paedophilia. Fury, however, is not a one-dimensional bigot, but a complex blend of front and vulnerability who has admitted having periods when he is “suicidal-sad.” From a travelling family, he had the kind of upbringing that is played for laughs on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding but sounds deeply unpleasant.
His religious convictions – which are entirely Old Testament – don’t help. Even so, you get the sense that his most outrageous remarks are custom-built to offend. In a nod to nominative determinism (he is named after Mike Tyson), Fury seems to feel it is incumbent on him to be as inflammatory as possible. Many of the things he says are driven less by a world-view than by the belief that provoking a backlash is what the sport requires.
Perhaps I’m cutting him too much slack. Certainly, Kelly Maloney has called for world boxing authorities to take collective action against him. That’s Kelly Maloney who, as boxing promoter Frank Maloney, said there were too many gays in Camden and who should know better than anyone that intolerance can be a cover for many things, including fear.
None of this means we should allow Fury’s comments to go unchallenged. We can empathise with the man without endorsing, or even tolerating, his views. And what he says matters. Hearing their heroes express homophobic views can have a terrible impact on LGBTI teenagers. The boxing authorities should make it clear that there’s a line and he has crossed it. On the other hand, if we sweep objectionable opinions under the carpet, they tend to breed. And , though impressionable, young people are not stupid. There are worse things they could learn than that the world is not black and white, and, for better or worse, we are all shaped by the past.
I also wonder why the “role model” rule is applied more to sports stars than to pop stars or actors. Musicians don’t have to be squeaky clean, just good at what they do. If the Grammys were judged on the basis of palatability as opposed to talent, I doubt Eminem would ever have won one.
So, no, it’s not ideal to have Fury on the SPOTY shortlist. But striking him off would merely turn him into a martyr. The 75,000-strong petition has already brought Nigel Farage out in his support and probably increased Fury’s share of the public vote.
Obsessing over his personal short-comings also deflects from the bigger issue, which is why sport continues to serve as a breeding ground for sexism and homophobia. It is only because such prejudices have not been tackled head-on that throwbacks such as Fury feel free to express their outdated opinions. We need those at the top to educate and set the tone.
I also hope the furore might lead to a rethink over the SPOTY format. In 2015, a “personality” contest has as much relevance as a Miss World contest. How much better if it was to be replaced by a pan-sport version of, say, the Ballon D’Or which is awarded solely on the basis of performance? It is the pressure on sports people to become “celebrities” that causes problems. It encourages them to say stupid things. It gets them in all sorts of needless trouble.