Rugby Australia’s timid response to Israel Folau’s homophobic comments on social media reflect a struggling code that appear too afraid to stand up to its most marketable star. Kaal Kaczmarek asks; why should star power or religion lessen Folau’s offence?
Rugby Australia’s representatives made an uncomfortably brief statement on Folau’s remarks earlier this week, stating “we do not support it” to journalists who brought forward the issue. The fact that Folau, who has amassed 32 tries in 62 caps for the Wallabies, is off contract at the end of this year, puts Rugby Australia in a dire predicament.
If they slap a suspension on Folau, he may be incensed enough to explore switching codes back to rugby league, where he will have no shortage of suitors.
If they choose to ignore or give a limp, token response to his comments that God’s plan is to send gay people to hell unless they repent for their sins or turn to Christianity, it will significantly weaken the strength of their brand and the image of diversity and inclusion they are trying to cultivate, such as the recently-launched ‘Part of More‘ campaign.
Any weak response also risks alienating another star player in David Pocock, who is a tireless campaigner for anti-racism and anti-homophobia political causes.
Pocock’s response to the latest controversy will be interesting, especially as he was responsible for reporting Warratahs forward Jacques Potgieter to the referee 2015 for using the word ‘faggot’ during a match. He even addressed the issue as part of a ‘Strength to Care’ campaign for Dove Men soap.
As Georgina Robinson in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, RA set a precedent wielding its Inclusion Policy and Code of Conduct when they fined Potgieter $20,000 and was required to undergo additional education and awareness training.
As Robinson asked, why has this display of conviction not been replicated so far with Folau?
Sympathisers of Folau like former Wallaby Drew Mitchell have backed Folau’s right to free speech. Speaking to Fox Sports, Mitchell said:
“The most disappointing thing I think in the last few weeks with other things that have happened outside of our sport is everyone has an opinion and people will attack those that don’t have the same opinion.”
“We just have to appreciate this is Izzy’s opinion and he’s entitled to it, whether you like it or not.
“He’s as much entitled to his opinion as you are with yours.
“The one thing in a team that is really important is that you all share the same belief and that belief that you can go on and win the title.”
With all due respect to Mitchell, this is far too simplistic and reductive a stance. What if the question posed to Folau had been ‘What is God’s plan for black people?’ and Folau’s response been the same?
What if there are gay players in his New South Wales and/or Australian teams?
Could a gay player really be expected to be best of teammates with someone who has condemned him to hell for who he loves?
Other sports like basketball have taken a far harder line on discrimination. In 2014, the NBA banned LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fined him 2.5 million dollars for making racist comments. Sterling’s comments were deplorable, but the fact that he was privately making the comments to his then girlfriend and was secretly recorded, makes Folau’s comments on a public social media platform even less excusable.
And what of religion? Is it okay that this could be used as a shield for discriminatory abuse?
There are many other deeply religious athletes who do not expose themselves and the radical beliefs of their religion so openly. Serena and Venus Williams belong to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church, which has some similarly extreme doctrines to Folau’s Assembly of God, but beyond thanking their maker for their success, have Serena or Venus ever used their religion as a weapon of judgement or discrimination?
If Folau wants to talk about the beliefs of his church, he should be smart enough to do it in a private forum among like-minded peers.
Go public and be prepared to be punished like any other individual.
Rugby Australia needs to clearly define this line, and use Folau’s impending (I hope) punishment as a precedent for a more responsible stance toward players’ use of social media.