Israel’s Follies

I wonder how Israel Folau will respond when Nigel Owens is appointed to referee a Test featuring Izzy in the colours of the Wallabies? I wonder what Michael Cheika will say if Owens is forced by on-field circumstance to show Izzy a card of a yellow or red colour?

On the one hand we have the national rugby coach of Australia, who has previously publically and scathingly accused Owens of bias against Australia.

On the other hand we have a high-profile player with some widely expressed homophobic views.

And plumb in the middle we have, arguably, the best referee in the world, and a proudly, openly, out of the closet, gay man.

The entire scenario presents us with a potentially toxic situation.

Why?

Israel Folau is Australia’s highest profile rugby player. He has 337,000 followers on Instagram. He is hero-worshipped by many, across all age groups and sectors of society. Along with David Pocock, he is also Australia’s best paid rugby player.

He is a very public figure.

And a publically quoted homophobe.

In answer to an Instagram user’s question on Tuesday, in the comments section of one of his posts, Folau said God’s plan for gay people was “HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”. It was deleted a day later but not before it was seen, copied, and sent around the world on Twitter and countless news and opinion sites.

This is not his first foray into anti-gay statements.

He has aired his views about homosexuality before. “I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions. but personally, I will not support gay marriage.” This comment was made on Twitter in the lead up to the Australian marriage equality postal survey.

In the post-ball tampering world, this is the kind of controversy that all Australian sports administrators, sponsors, players, and sports fans simply do not want or need.

The media, of course, are freshly energised. Yet another issue with which to beat Australian sportsmen and women over the head.

And they have leapt at the opportunity. A quick browse through the sports sections of the media world, from the Guardian in the UK, to Australia’s own Sydney Morning Herald, from the Telegraph to the Mail, from New Zealand to Singapore, via Johannesburg and even Los Angeles, Izzy has hit the headlines.

For all the wrong reasons.

Not for his sporting endeavours or even his high-profile marriage to New Zealand Silver Ferns netball star Maria Tutaia, but for his anti-gay homophobia.

This is happening at a time when social media has become a powerful force for expressing outrage and the public shaming of those who have overstepped the imaginary line drawn in the sand. Ask a certain Steve Smith, or Cameron Bancroft, of perhaps David Warner about it.

And now Izzy Folau is under the spotlight.

Not only Izzy, but his employers; the Waratahs and Rugby Australia are being challenged about their star’s troubling social media comments.

And Rugby Australia and the Waratahs are being slammed for their limp responses to Folau’s transgressions.

I label them transgressions because they fly in the face of Rugby Australia and the Waratahs’ own Codes of Conduct.

Along with cricket and the other football codes, Rugby Australia is a founding member of the two-year-old Pride in Sport program, Australia’s first sporting inclusion program that helps and advises national sporting bodies on how to foster inclusion in their codes.

Rugby Australia has its own Inclusion Policy, adopted four years ago, and a Code of Conduct, both of which explicitly condemn homophobia, homophobic comments or discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In 2015 then-Waratahs forward Jacques Potgieter was fined $20,000 under the Code of Conduct for using the word ‘faggot’ during a match. In a statement issued at the time, the Waratahs said: “There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and we have endeavoured as a club to embody these values on and off the field. We pride ourselves on a strong culture, and this incident is by no means definitive of our collective identity as a football club.”

Where is that commitment now that their premier star has publically expressed his homophobia?

Some might suggest that Folau’s opinion is a personal issue based on his “religious beliefs.” This argument simply does not hold water. Nothing can and does allow a player to communicate a belief, religious or otherwise, that vilifies or has the potential to do harm to a part of society.

Israel Folau is a public figure, far more than just a rugby player of enormous talent. He has penned a series of children’s books and uses his name and image to sell sports shoes and headphones. He is well aware of the power of his words and actions. He earns a very substantial living from his public status.

Rugby Australia’s did try the “religious belief” defence, somehow suggesting that the words “religious belief” serve as a catch-all defence to homophobic comments, racial slurs or even sexual discrimination.

The Waratahs also chose to try and avoid the issue, making no public statement but reaching for the “personal view” defence behind the scenes.

Then the issue hit the proverbial fan, the media outrage started to explode across the world, sponsors became fidgety, and the governing body was forced to react.

Rugby Australia went “on the record.” Making some discreet “We don’t support it” statements to various journalists. Still no media release was issued by either Rugby Australia nor the Waratahs.

Both Rugby Australia and the Waratahs are between a rock and a hard place. They are in the middle of delicate contract negotiations. Folau is Australia’s highest profile player and, also their highest-paid. His contract is up for renegotiation, and he has indicated that he is undecided about his future and whether he will be available for next year’s Rugby World Cup. He can, and is, holding a gun to his employer’s heads. “Pay me what I want, or I am gone…”

Both Rugby Australia and the Waratahs are desperately trying to convince Folau to stay on. They need him as a Wallaby and a Waratah! They are offering generous terms for another two or three seasons beyond the end of this year.

There is no doubt that Rugby Australia and the Waratahs will not be too pleased about Izzy’s public utterances at a time when Australian sport is particularly conflict-averse. The spotlight is firmly fixed on Australian sports personalities at this time, and the view is not all that complimentary. Cricket Australia must be quietly, yet vociferously thanking Folau for the diversion of attention!

Rugby is trying so hard to change its image and attract more supporters and participants. Only last Monday, Rugby Australia proudly unveiled its emotive new branding campaign, Part of More. A long-awaited recasting of rugby as more than just a game for affluent white men, featuring girls, Indigenous Australians, a Muslim family and a variety of other characters.

But no homos, if Izzy has anything to say about it.

The public backlash to Folau’s statement has started to impact on the sponsors that Rugby Australia so desperately need for financial survival. Qantas, the national airline, and headline sponsor of the Wallabies, has been included in the social media backlash, with some suggesting the airline should drop its sponsorship of the Wallabies.

Qantas responded to the criticism by echoing Rugby Australia’s statement that it supports “all forms of inclusion, whether its sexuality, race, or gender”.

“As a sponsor of Rugby Australia, we’re supportive of their approach towards tolerance and inclusion, which aligns with our own.” They went on to say that they find Israel Folau’s statements to be “very disappointing.”

This issue hits rugby right at the moment when financial sponsors are withdrawing support from Cricket Australia. Some of that sponsorship money might have found its way into rugby? Sport generally, does not need more controversy!

Far be it from me to suggest that Folau is not entitled to his ultra-conservative beliefs, or to talk publically about them.

But I do believe that he has a responsibility towards the sport that employs him and provides him with the platform for earning a well-above average income outside of the playing fields. He should subscribe to the ethics and Code of Conduct of his employers. His latest comment has gone a bit too far. Amplified by social and mainstream media, he is causing damage to the sport itself, and he risks alienating the hearts and minds of potential rugby fans.

In addition, Rugby Australia and the Waratah’s muted reaction risks making a mockery of the supposed values of their sport.

Methinks they need to have a very stern conversation with Mr Folau.