• Tyson Fury (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The BBC has found itself caught up in a storm of trouble over its decision to nominate a controversial boxer for its "Sports Personality of the Year".
By
Drew Sheldrick

17 Dec 2015 - 2:55 PM  UPDATED 17 Dec 2015 - 2:55 PM

The BBC's 'Sports Personality of the Year' award - endearingly known as SPOTY - has long been cause for debate and disagreement. But by the time the award is announced this weekend, this year's event will have led to a broadcaster's suspension, an online petition garnering tens of thousands of signatories and the BBC chief having to defend the awards in front of a parliamentary committee.

It began with the selection of heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury for the 12-person award shortlist, announced on November 30. By the next day, previous comments by Fury about homosexuality had resurfaced, calling into question his candidacy for the accolade.

In an interview with Britain's The Mail on Sunday in November, Fury appeared to compare homosexuality with paedophilia in comments about the Bible and Armageddon.

"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," he said.

"Who would have thought in the '50s and '60s that those first two would be legalised? When I say paedophiles could be made legal, it sounds crazy. But if I had said to you about the first two being made legal in the '50s, I would have been looked upon as a crazy man."

Before long, a Change.Org petition calling for the BBC to remove Fury from the shortlist had appeared. It now has nearly 140,000 signatures.

Fury's presence on the shortlist did not go over well internally at the BBC either. Gay television reporter Andy West, who works for BBC Northern Ireland, used Facebook to air his grievances.

"My employer is hurting me and other gay people by celebrating someone who considers me no better than a paedophile and who believes homosexual people are helping to bring about the end of the world," West wrote in his original Facebook post.  

"It's tempting to see him for the laughable idiot he is but sadly there are many other idiots who will be inspired and encouraged by his naive, juvenile bigotry.

"I am ashamed to work for the BBC when it lacks bravery to admit it is making a mistake." 

On December 10, West said he had been suspended by the BBC pending an investigation into his comments. 

For his part, BBC director general Tony Hall defended Fury's place on the shortlist. He told the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee this week that the list was decided by an independent panel.

"[Fury's] been put on that list because of his sporting prowess," Hall said.

"It's now up to the people to judge whether he should become Sports Personality of the Year."

Fellow nominee and Olympic gold medallist Greg Rutherford was reconsidering his involvement with the event following the Fury controversy. The long jump champion and gay rights advocate decided to stay on following discussions with the BBC.

"I have been in discussions with the BBC regarding my involvement with SPOTY after hearing what I believe to be very out-dated and derogatory comments from a fellow SPOTY nominee," Rutherford said in a statement following the BBC meeting.

"Everybody has the right to freedom of speech, which is something that we as a society have struggled with and fought for generations to get to where we are now but by the nature of these comments, undermine the struggles that we have been through.

"As such, I wanted to speak with the BBC about sharing a stage with somebody that had views that are so strongly against my own."

Openly gay Australian bobsledder Simon Dunn also weighed in on the controversy, writing an open letter to the BBC this week.

"As an openly gay athlete who’s competed in both rugby and bobsleigh, I’m aware that homophobia is massive issue within the sporting world and is something I have actually experienced myself to the point when I questioned my own participation in the sports I love," Dunn wrote.

"I commend fellow athletes like Greg Rutherford for speaking up against Tyson’s comments as well as the unified outpouring of disapproval from the community as a whole, as this will do a small part in discrediting such bigoted comments.

"The BBC needs to realise that sportsmanship is a fundamental part of being a ‘Sports Personality’. That not only should an athlete be judged by their on-field performance but on how they act off the field too."

The largest support and advocacy organisation for LGBT people in Northern Ireland, The Rainbow Project, plans to protest the live taping of the winner's announcement in Belfast on December 20.

Rainbow Project director John O’Doherty said it was disappointing that the BBC refused to remove Fury from the shortlist.

"An excellent boxer Tyson Fury may be, however his extremely callous and erroneous remarks about our community make him an unworthy candidate to be recognised among the UK’s excellent sporting personalities and ambassadors," O'Doherty said.

"[We] will protest at the awards ceremony at the SSE Arena so that the BBC will understand that when they put homophobes and misogynists on a short list of athletes worthy of celebration, they will rightly be condemned."

No matter the victor on Sunday, the event itself is sure to be a knockout.