By Helen Owton
One could be forgiven for being under the misapprehension that the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year accolade should be about more than a sportsman or woman’s exploits on track, field, court or ring. The clue’s in the name: “personality”. Most of us, I would think, would expect that the honour should be bestowed on someone whose achievements and bearing have struck a particular chord with the public, and have elevated their sport beyond the physical achievement. Apparently not.
I have to declare an interest here. I am among the 77,000 and more who have signed a petition (available here) pressurising the BBC to remove boxer Tyson Fury from its shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) on the grounds that his shockingly sexist and homophobic remarks show him to be a man whose personality gives absolutely no grounds for celebration, still less for an award.
Fury’s comments include remarks about fellow SPOTY nominee Jessica Ennis-Hill’s appearance, saying that she “slaps up good” and “looks quite fit when she’s got a dress on”.
In response to the widespread public condemnation of his remarks, Fury has denied being sexist and his wife Paris has defended the boxer as his “show side” but he has continued his vile stream of unconsciousness telling critics in an interview with IFLTV’s Kugan Cassius that they can “suck my balls” and called those who have signed the SPOTY petition as “50,000 wankers”.
I’m a little bit backward I didn’t really go to school so which part of “a woman looks good in a dress” was sexist?… I stand up for my beliefs. My wife’s job is cooking and cleaning and looking after these kids, that’s it. She does get to make some decisions – what she’s gonna cook me for tea when I get home… She’s a very privileged woman to have a husband like me.
It’s also fairly disturbing that Cassius appears to agree with these sentiments.
Fury has been unrepentant since, as his Twitter comments amply illustrate:
Not only have his comments been sexist, but he continues this verbal diarrhoea by attempting to frame his homophobic beliefs as embedded in Christianity saying “the bible doesn’t lie”. Fury told Oliver Holt:
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 one’s paedophilia. Who would have thought in the 50s and 60s that those first two would be legalised?
This link between paedophilia and homosexuality is not only extremely harmful but against the law. However, these laws brought in by the Equality Act in 2010 do not seem to be protecting women and LGBT people from this sort of discrimination.
Once again, I’m disappointed that a sportsperson lacking in such moral character has been able to receive exposure that celebrates his aggressive sporting prowess but ignores the greater problem that can be spread by these harmful beliefs. Many sports can be misused as an arena for promoting a skewed brand of heterosexual masculinity which feeds sexism and homophobia into all sports – whether played by men or women.
Fury’s brand of sexism and homophobia only serves to reinforce these findings. When these sorts of attitudes are evident and accepted in sport, it is hardly surprising that athletes have fears of “coming out” and sportswomen feel less valued.
The harm of invincibility
Of course, there’s no suggestion that this applies to Fury, but when athletes believe that they are invincible, above the law, or incapable of being hurt they can undermine respect for authority or social norms and can result in criminal activity or deviant behaviour because they believe that the “jock culture” of which they are a part takes precedence over any other authoritative structures outside their sporting world.
Indeed, a large body of research suggests that competitive sporting environments provide a unique socio-cultural context that offers possibilities for sexual abuse and exploitation to take place. For example, findings in one study indicated that male college student-athletes were responsible for a significantly higher percentage of reports of sexual assault on the campuses of Division I institutions (the highest level of intercollegiate athletes). Another study showed that while male college athletes made up only 3.3% of the collegiate population, they represented 19% of sexual assault perpetrators and 35% of domestic violence perpetrators.
Meanwhile challenging homophobia in sport can be an intimidating task, particularly when the person handing out the abusive comments appears to be so intimidating and invincible. But nevertheless, some sports are raising their game – rugby, for example, rising to the challenge of promoting awareness of gay issues. It seems to be making a big effort to challenge homophobia, which also could enable a much less narrow definition of masculinity to be accepted in rugby.
Perhaps boxing should follow the example of men’s rugby? The BBC could help this shift by removing Fury from their list. It would certainly help the sport of kings climb off the canvas when it comes to promoting acceptable behaviour among its stars.