Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has refused to criticise Israel Folau over his anti-gay sentiments and said youngsters should find another idol if they don’t agree with their sporting heroes.
Devout Christian Folau, one of Australia’s most marketable players, caused a storm last month when he posted on social media that gay people were destined for hell.
He again courted controversy last week by tweeting a link to a video opposing same-sex marriage by late American evangelist David Wilkerson.
In his first comments on the issue, Cheika was asked what his message would be to a young gay child who looked up to Folau.
“There’s been a lot made of (this),” he told Fox Sports Australia on Wednesday evening.
“Self-esteem in people, no matter who they are, is extremely important — self-belief, self-esteem — and if that’s something that you don’t agree with, then you detach from that.
“That way it’ll be, ‘he’s no longer my idol’ if that’s the case.”
A defiant Folau, 29, has made it clear he will not be backing away from his staunch religious beliefs regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage despite a backlash from current and former players.
Cheika said the onus was also on parents to shield their children from potentially harmful social media posts.
“You’ve got to protect those kids from everything that’s out there,” he said. “Us as parents, which I am, and as coaches, which I try to do with the (Wallabies) lads because it happens all around.
“When players are getting the same in return — nasty messages, social media — it’s about trying to build self-belief so you’re not affected by those things.”
Folau has escaped sanction from Rugby Australia so far with the governing body’s chief Raelene Castle admitting his stance was the biggest challenge of her career, arguing it was a delicate situation pitting a “human rights issue” against freedom of speech.
It has put Rugby Australia in a difficult position as it tries to balance its desire to re-sign Folau to a new contract with the demands of leading sponsors including national airline Qantas, which has criticised his sentiments.
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits from Richard Barrett)