By Chris Garrison
In 1993, NBA basketball superstar Charles Barkley stirred controversy when he filmed a commercial for Nike, during which he stated ‘I am not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.’
All manner of sins is forgiven in this day and age because of someone’s sporting celebrity
At the time, people were divided into two groups who stood on opposite sides of the interpretation of the message Charles was delivering. One was incorrectly suggesting that Charles was attempting to justify his slightly edgy demeanour, and abdicate himself from the responsibility that comes with being in the upper echelon of professional sports.
The reality is that Charles took his influence very seriously, particularly with kids, and he embraced this facet of his success wholeheartedly, and with aplomb. His point was that professional athletes and celebrities were no substitute for the significant role that parents and mentors can, and should, play in the lives of children, and the extension of simply being a good person in society.
British boxer Tyson Fury seems to lack the same level of understanding as Charles, and others like him. Fury fails to recognise that being a role model isn’t something that one can actively choose to be, or not to be. That role is assigned the very moment that another person looks at someone else with any sense of either aspiration, or admiration. From that moment on, said person becomes a model for how others behave. The only Shakespearean choice is whether or not one chooses to be a role model of merit and character, or one of negativity and moral turpitude, once that level of celebrity is achieved.
All manner of sins is forgiven in this day and age because of someone’s sporting celebrity. It requires little effort to see this in action, both from the standpoint of the willingness of people in positions of power to mask indiscretions, and those that sit in circles of fandom to shout down anyone who gives the slightest indication that their hero is something other than perfect. Perhaps the best example of this in the UK recently has been the controversy surrounding convicted rapist Ched Evans, and this week the mentally prehistoric comments of Fury following his recent championship title acquisition.
There is no place in British society for extremism and intolerance
In the case of Evans, it wasn’t the death threats received by the victim that prevented the club from considering reinstatement. It wasn’t media reports pointing out the numerous ways the public was willing to prioritise goal-scoring potential over violence against women. It took the superior sporting celebrity of Jessica Ennis-Hill to threaten to withdraw her name from Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stand to get the club to seriously consider allowing Evans back on the team. Ultimately, Evans failed in his attempts to regain his status in football, and Sheffield United sold the Bramall Stand naming to a sponsor. The larger issue is that Evans clearly demonstrated that whatever skill he possessed on the pitch was significantly more than the skill he possessed at simply being a decent human being.
While Fury’s actions haven’t gone down the same path of criminal prosecution, his recent misogynistic and homophobic comments are no less dangerous and hate-inducing. This has caused many people to question his inclusion on the BBC SPOTY list. While comments about gay people being the same thing as a paedophile, and women belonging in the kitchen, might be easy enough to write off by the reasonably minded, his position of influence as a professional athlete means that he has a following, and his words will be gospel to those that feel a sense of communion with him.
Role model whether you like it or not
This is why, regardless of a willingness to be so, Tyson Fury is a role model. So is every other professional athlete. It’s actually more than that. Every person has the potential to be a role model, if they are ever in a position where even ONE person looks upon them as someone to emulate. This was the undertone of that Charles Barkley commercial.
This is not a responsibility that one can bestow upon themselves. This very much follows the nickname rule. No one can assign themselves a nickname and expect others to follow that naming convention. A nickname is awarded, earned, and happens without the consent of the namee. Once it’s given, there is little that the holder of the name can do about it, aside from removing his or herself from the circle of people who use the name.
The same holds true for the concept of being a role model, and this is why people like Tyson Fury and his management team need to recognise their responsibility. Fury is on a platform now. He has fans and followers. He has legions of people who want to be him. He has fans who would sacrifice many things just for the opportunity to have a picture with him. He has the status of someone that makes others think ‘If I could just meet that guy, I’m sure he’d see that we would be great friends. We have so much in common.’ He has people who post social media messages to him in the vain hopes of a reply, which would bring a sense of excitement that might be otherwise lacking.
If Fury were to use this platform for good, he could have a huge, positive impact on so many people. Instead, he chooses to be a mouthpiece of inequality. And the real issue with this is that even moderate people will potentially adopt his attitudes, and then spread the same message. At the same time, Fury is happy to stand alongside Ian Mckellen for a picture, most likely because the celebrity of Gandalf and Magneto is superior to his own, therefore McKellen’s gayness is acceptable. But if you aren’t famous, and happen to be gay, then you are the work of the devil in the eyes of Fury, and many of his fans.
What you see is what you get from Tracy. She’s not only a world class athlete, she’s a world class person.
We don’t have to look very far to see the antithesis of Fury. Within our own sport of mountain biking, we have Tracy Moseley. Tracy is not only a multiple World Champion, she also understands that her notoriety puts her in a position to give back to the sport. To this end, she spends a great deal of time working with young riders to develop racing talent, and hosts numerous skills clinics for kids, during which they receive coaching from her, and a likeminded group of volunteers. What you see is what you get from Tracy. She’s not only a world class athlete, she’s a world class person. People benefit from her willingness to share her knowledge and expertise with others. Those kids she coaches look up to her as both an athlete, and a mentor. This is the definition of being a good role model.
Here’s the catch
And herein lies the problem with SPOTY. The section criteria of the short list consists of three items: individuals who reflect UK sporting achievement nationally and internationally; those who represent the depth and breadth of UK sports; and those who have an impact over and beyond the sport or achievement. There’s no question that Fury has achieved success as a professional boxer on an international scale. But it’s point number three that should lead people of conscience to vote for anyone other than him. It’s also why people like Tracy Moseley should be on the list, but aren’t simply due to the lack of mainstream popularity of mountain bike racing.
Anyone studying for UK citizenship learns that ‘there is no place in British society for extremism and intolerance.’ It’s in the study guide, and it’s probably on the test. It is one of the founding pillars of British society that anyone wishing to reside here permanently must accept.
If only more of those with the gift of both sporting prowess and the birthright of citizenship understood the same requirements as those wishing to make a new and positive contribution to UK society.
I am a role model, and so are you. To borrow an expression from John Amaechi, the only choice you have is whether you are Jedi, or Sith.