Andre Williams vs Sports Illustrated

Complainant: Andre Williams

Lodged by: Andre Williams

Article: No distance left to run

Author of article: David Runciman

Date: 21 June 2010

Respondent: Sports Illustrated

Complaint
Mr André Williams complains about an article in Sports Illustrated (March 2010), headlined No distance left to run.
The complaint concerns a joke about St Peter and Jesus, saying:
  • the article goes too far by telling a joke about Jesus; and
  • the word that is used (f*@k) is a swearword that amounts to blasphemy.
Williams asks what would happen if the names of St Peter and Jesus were replaced with Mohammad and Allah.
Analysis
The article is about the pursuit of sporting perfection – when sport gets too easy it becomes increasingly pointless, it is stated. Fear is expressed that rapidly advancing technology that messes around with the body, rather than “divine intervention” (read: skill), risks turning sport into a joke in its pursuit of perfection.
David Runciman, the writer, then quotes another author who wondered what it would be like to play golf in heaven. This leads to the golf joke about St Peter and Jesus: When Jesus hooked his first tee-shot, an angel guided the ball back into play, the dove of peace caught the ball in its beak and dropped it on the green, from where the Holy Spirit blew the ball into the hole.
So St Peter said to Jesus: “Do you wanna play golf or do you wanna f*@k around?”
The magazine says:
  • it was not its intention to blaspheme;
  • Runciman is a well-respected journalist;
  • it syndicated the article in question from the Observer, “one of the world’s most respected newspapers”, where it was first published;
  • the joke referred to is one of the best known golf jokes in the world and has been published thousands of times all over the world; and
  • the publication of the joke does not contravene any South African law.
The relevant article in the Press Code is Art. 2.1: “The press should avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s…religion…”
Let us now take a closer look at the merits of the complaint:
Jokes about Jesus
A blanket acceptance of the notion that all jokes about Jesus are by nature denigratory or discriminatory will be inappropriate – each joke should be judged on its own merits.
Blasphemy
The following needs to be taken into consideration:
  • The joke’s context (technology can turn sport into a joke in its pursuit of perfection) is of vital importance. In the joke the poor shot by Jesus is corrected through supernatural powers. So St Peter feels done in – that is not fair play, he believes. The phrase “f*@k around” is used to express this feeling, and does not as such amount to swearing. (“F*@k you” would have been swearing.) Although it can be said that the use of the phrase “f*@k around” constitutes bad taste, it does not by definition amounts to a breach of the Press Code.
  • Even though the expression in dispute is found to be not swearing, it must also be kept in mind that the words are attributed to Peter and not to Jesus.
  • Art. 1.7 of the Press Code states: “Reports…relative to matters involving indecency or obscenity shall be presented with due sensitivity towards the prevailing moral climate.” The fact that the joke has been published many times all over the world is indicative of a prevailing moral climate that allows for the publication of this specific joke.
The question what would happen if the names of Peter and Jesus were replaced with Mohammad and Allah is hypothetical as each case has to be considered on its own merits.
Finding
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman