A lot is going on with the sacking – or potential sacking – of Israel Folau from Rugby Australia. It has been fascinating to watch, and interesting to see, various sports journalists, pundits and the public themselves take to their various corners to defend ‘free speech’, ‘sportsmen are not role models’ and my personal favourite ‘what about human rights’.
I realise many may be hearing the name ‘Israel Folau’ in the news or at very least the sporting part of the news, and not being ‘sportsball’ fans, unaware of what the big deal is. So let’s take a step back.
Israel Folau is an athlete. I say athlete as he is, an exceptional one at that. An athlete who has played Rugby League (Melbourne Storm & Brisbane Broncos). He also played AFL with Greater Western Sydney Giants and then moved to Rugby Union and the New South Wales Waratahs. Note he played at the highest level of Rugby League, in the Queensland Maroons and Australian’s Kangaroos, he is also currently – until paperwork is done – a member of the Australian Wallabies. Not many make it to the top of the ladder in one sport, so looking at Folau’s career so far (he is only 30) you can see why I call him an ‘exceptional athlete’ not just a ‘footy player’.
Israel Folau is also a deeply religious man of the Assemblies of God flavour. He always has been a religious man, even as a young man, though was a Mormon back in those days. Also important to note that even though he was always known as a ‘religious’ man, it was respected and he never copped flack for this, and conversely he never seemed to make ‘religious’ pronouncements either. This seemed to change around the time of his marriage to Maria Tuta'ia (New Zealand Ferns netball legend & current Adelaide Thunderbirds Goal Shooter) in 2016 and the Australian Same Sex Marriage vote in 2017. This postal vote did divide the nation and Folau was just one of a number of those prominent in the media who proclaimed their stance. Folau was of course against gay marriage.
I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions. but personally, I will not support gay marriage.✌❤🙏— Israel Folau (@IzzyFolau) September 13, 2017
In April 2018 Israel made a homophobic post that had most in uproar, with his comment on Instagram from a fan as to ‘what was gods plan for gay people’? And Izzy responded with:
“HELL…Unless they repent their sins and turn to God.”
As you can imagine, outrage ensued, we in Australia had just gone through a horribly divisive so-called ‘debate’ on Marriage Equality and those in the LGBTIQ community were still battered and bruised from that. The Social Media outrage alone meant his one sentence on Instagram could not be ignored.
Another spanner in the works for Folau was the fact that Qantas were – and currently still are - the main sponsor for the Wallabies, they are the “Qantas Wallabies” and both Rugby Australia and Qantas are supporters of ‘diversity’, the modern catchphrase used in most organisations which encompasses Gender Equality, LGBTIQ inclusion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respect and engagement and often -particularly when it comes to sporting organisations- disability sporting inclusion as well.
With Rugby Australia being one of the modern sporting organisations to espouse these ‘values’, Folau was already out of step with the organisation. Add to the fact that Qantas not only supports similar values as a corporate culture; is the main sponsor of the Wallabies and the CEO of Qantas itself, Alan Joyce actively campaigned and financially supported the Marriage Equality YES vote. Well, Folau’s homophobic statements were never going to be tolerated, too much in the way of sponsorship and public backlash were at risk.
We were never actually told what went down between Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle and Waratahs general manager Andrew Hore last year, though, it was obvious that Folau pulled his head in. No more homophobic statements and you would have to assume as any modern business does, he was warned as to what was considered publicly acceptable.
“After we’d all talked, I told Raelene if she felt the situation had become untenable – that I was hurting Rugby Australia, its sponsors and the Australian rugby community to such a degree that things couldn’t be worked through – I would walk away from my contract, immediately.”
The above quote was Israel Folau himself writing in PlayersVoice 16 April 2018.
From Folau’s side, it sounds like they came to an agreement as he continued playing, yet not trashing ‘gays’ on social media or in public. All good.
Until last week that is when Tasmania passed the ‘Marriage Amendments Bill’ which made gender optional on birth certificates, something celebrated by the transgender community in Australia.
The devil has blinded so many people in this world, REPENT and turn away from your evil ways. Turn to Jesus Christ who will set you free. pic.twitter.com/BWSWTMye98— Israel Folau (@IzzyFolau) April 10, 2019
Sadly, Folau was not content with just warning those ‘blinded by the devil” to “REPENT” on twitter, he went further on Instagram, with the below post, which to be fair to Folau did not just smack LGBTIQ alone this time but pretty much most of the sports fan base over the age of 18 SIGH!
The focus has rightly been on his telling homosexuals they are going to hell – AGAIN – as obviously this was what he was warned about this time last year and the reason why Rugby Australia acted so quickly in response to the above with a short sharp media release from Rugby Australia Chief Executive, Raelene Castle and NSW Rugby Union CEO, Andrew Hore stating they did not agree with Folau’s statements and pretty much he was out the door:
"In the absence of compelling mitigating factors, it is our intention to terminate his contract."
For mine, that was a fair call. Rugby Australia is in the position of having an ‘employee’ of theirs ignore their social media policy and values AFTER already being warned not to. He was also putting sponsorship at risk. So, like many, when I saw that statement last week on the 11th of April, I rejoiced as well. However, since then, the hand wringing has begun in regard to:
- Are sportspeople role models?
- What about Freedom of Speech?
- What about Freedom of Religion?
- Do Sporting organisations have the right to dictate ‘values’ to players?
- Do Sporting organisations have the right to inhibit a players Social Media?
- Is sacking Israel Folau a breach of Human Rights?
And more… but the above are the main ones, these are the big arguments in media and on social media which can get really messy, particularly on social media, so these are my thoughts:
Are sportspeople role models?
Yes they are. I know in a perfect world we would like to think parents, family, teachers etc. are real role models, but sadly, this is just not human nature. Kids want to buy that merchandise from the Clubs because they want to be those players. A kid in the backyard is not trying to emulate mum or dad kicking a footy ball, they are trying to emulate the likes of an Israel Folau or Taylah Harris. Hell, I played netball, but my daughter back in the day was not trying to be like me when training, she was channelling her hero Liz Ellis, including the expense of buying Liz Ellis ‘shoes’ to play in. This is why players get the big bikkies – well, sadly, not Liz Ellis back then, or for that matter many women at all in this nation, coz, you know Women in sport is not as valued as ‘blokes’ but that is an issue for another day.
Big name players get big money because kids want to be them, adults want to be thrilled by them, fans hang off their every action on & off the field, clubs and sporting bodies sell a heap of merchandise and bums on seats because of this adoration and sponsors pay massive amounts of money not to ‘support the game’ as they say but for the exposure to those fans and to associate their brand with a sporting brand.
To say sportsmen are not role models when they stuff up is just a cop out. They are not your average run of the mill Australian punter, they have a limited time in the spotlight where their athletic ability allows them to shine and often rake in millions during that period. They can’t have it both ways. They can’t say, it should only be what I do on the field that matters, coz quite frankly, just what they do on the field is not enough in this day and age of social media and mass marketing as they become a ‘brand’ as individuals themselves and as part of their teams. It is part of the job whether they like it or not.
Personally, considering how short lived a ‘players’ career can be yet the massive amounts of money they can make in that short lived period, well, why the hell they can’t just shut up and behave themselves for a few years is beyond me UGH!
Israel Folau is a role model. His pronouncements have just told any vulnerable kids struggling with their sexuality that they will go to hell – again. This is harmful, full stop!
What about Freedom of Speech?
Of course the likes of Alan Jones, the Australian Conservatives and the other usual suspects are carrying on about ‘freedom of speech’. Even Barnaby Joyce & Mark Latham got into that space on social media, using this drama to continue their political correctness culture war.
To a certain point, I agree with them, Yes, Israel Folau is entitled to say what he believes. However, freedom of speech is not freedom FROM consequences of that speech. Maybe back in the 1950’s Izzy could have expressed his sentiments about gays and been applauded for that righteous stand? Hell, over 200 years ago he could have said similar about slaves and again, been applauded for his words. Not today. Times change, people are more inclusive – not as much as many would like but getting there – and society has changed as well, as the Australian vote for Marriage Equality illustrated. Society in general does not consider banging on about gays going to hell as acceptable. Therefore, there was and will be ‘consequences’ for expressing that sentiment.
So yeah… Izzy has the freedom to say whatever the hell he likes, others also have the freedom to ignore, argue or punish those comments by withholding support or similar. Freedom of speech goes both ways. So in my opinion, the whole “Folau should not be sacked under the guise of ‘freedom of speech’ is bullshit. He knew the consequences of that ‘freedom of speech’ so he has to suck them up.
What about Freedom of Religion?
Freedom of Religion is a bit like freedom of speech for me. Yep, you are free to believe in whatever the hell you like. But again, you are not free to force others to believe what you believe. You are not free to enforce your beliefs on others. No-one is stopping Folau from being religious, praying to his God, attending his church, he is free to practice his religion. He is free to sprout his religious beliefs publicly, though, see ‘What about freedom of speech’ above as to my thoughts re consequences & it going both ways. 😉
Do Sporting organisations have the right to dictate ‘values’ to players?
Yes, yes they do. Sporting organisations and bodies can only afford to run an organisation, put on the games and pay the players if they have the support of the public who will pay to put their bums on seats at the grounds or watch on the telly combined with businesses that want to be associated with their clubs/organisation and hand over big bucks to publicly acknowledged sponsors.
Most modern clubs are smart. Emphasis on the word ‘modern’, they understand they are in a crowded marketplace, they need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible to flourish in that marketplace. Nowadays, being ‘inclusive’ is normally a common ‘value’ the more successful organisations purport to be part of their culture. As frankly, why would you want to alienate any particular segments of society like the LGBTIQ community or even women for that fact? It would just be stupid, harm your brand and your ability to bring in the big bucks, which pay those players, which attract the punters and so the circle goes.
When a particular player, ie Israel Folau decides to publicly diss the published ‘values’ of his sport, well, in my opinion the sporting organisation has a right to say, Dude, you are pissing off our customers, sorry mate, no place for you here.
I’d like to note here that the NRL also has copped a bit of a whack from many as they came out very quickly in response to speculation that Israel Folau might jump back to Rugby League if Rugby Union showed him the door:
"Israel Folau fails the NRL's inclusiveness culture, which is a policy strongly supported by the ARLC," Mr Beattie said in a statement.
To be honest, this surprised me. As I stated earlier, Israel Folau is a sensational athlete and I could imagine many NRL Club CEO’s and Coaches would have been eying off him as an addition to their teams, as face it, normally in the past if there was a ‘wrong’ decision to be made, well, the NRL were normally the first one to make it UGH! But even a ‘blokey’ dinosaur like the NRL has finally started to enter the modern era where diversity & inclusiveness are something that is to be valued by both themselves & their sponsors, more importantly, not just a pretty statement on a website, but a policy to be upheld and enacted.
Do Sporting organisations have the right to inhibit a players Social Media?
Yes, yes sadly they do. In a perfect world you would like to think that what you say on social media has nothing to do with your employment, but, that is just no longer the case. It is something that is argued endlessly and I’d say will be for some time yet to come, the Anonymous accounts lead to trolling verse the using full names bit. It is complicated, but as it stands now, social media is also used to build ‘personal brands’, it has allowed celebrities to garner further celebrity and sports stars to become bigger ‘brands’ worth even more to their clubs & sponsors, so there is an obligation there and I fully appreciate why most large modern organisations and businesses will now have a social media policy in place that they expect their employees to adhere to.
Even a small family run business like mine who has a regional portal covering the Sunshine Coast is not going to cop an employee that will actively run all over social media trashing the Sunshine Coast, it Is not a good look for us and to be frank, would go against ‘our’ stated business cultures and values. By all means, call yourself something else and say what ever the hell you like, just not in a name that could be publicly associated with us. That is pretty much the vibe for most Businesses, Sporting Organisations, Community Groups etc. etc.
Israel Folau may identify himself on social media as “Living for Jesus Christ #TeamJesus🕇” BUT he doesn’t have the massive number of followers because he is Israel Folau the ‘Christian Preacher’, he has built this following over the years for being Israel Folau the elite athlete, former Origin & Kangaroo player and current Wallabies star.
- Israel Folau Twitter: 125k followers
- Israel Folau Instagram: 334k followers
- Israel Folau Facebook: 134k followers
So yeah, the above are big numbers, and the sporting orgs and sponsors pay the likes of Folau the big bucks to use those numbers to promote their brands associated with the sport, not to bring the sport into disrepute by dissing a massive segment of their fan base, so they have every right to expect their social media policy to be adhered to.
Looking forward to our last hit out of the season against @EnglandRugby in the new Menace boots from @ASICSAustralia! You can keep up to date with all things rugby on the new @ASICSRugby account #IMOVEME #ASICSRugby @Wallabies #ENGvAUS #GoldBlooded pic.twitter.com/I1QHxcSUE3— Israel Folau (@IzzyFolau) November 24, 2018
Is sacking Israel Folau a breach of Human Rights?
I will admit, this is not one I was expecting. Though, considering the recent plight of Hakeem al-Araibi I suppose it was to be expected as we started to have a larger conversation in this nation as to the intersection of sport and human rights.
Tracey Holmes has written a very good piece for ABC discussing this very issue, “Israel Folau's sacking from rugby union isn't the end. Sport must deal with conflicting human rights” and as she concludes:
“This may be sport's first legal test case pitting religious freedoms against the freedom of sexual preference.”
It may be. I concede that any organisation or business who purports to support ‘diversity’ means it will be difficult to adhere to this mantra when the likes of an Israel Folau is also entitled to his ‘diverse’ opinion and belief, even if it is a minority one in modern society?
Though for me, the final thought on that matter of conflicting human rights comes down to choices.
You choose to have a religion.
You DON’T choose to have a ‘sexual identity’, it is not a ‘preference’ - to quote Lady Gaga you are “Born this way”.
Israel Folau may feel a tad frustrated if he feels he can’t preach his flavour of ‘God’s word’ from the roof tops while he is employed to play Rugby, but… that is his choice. He has the choice of following his code’s social media policy of inclusion or leaving that code for another job, like Preaching full time. He has that choice.
The LGBTIQ community don’t have a choice in whether they will cop even more vilification? Words and sentiments from the likes of a Folau encourage hate against their community. Homophobia, Transphobia and LGBTIQ discrimination has real life ramifications particularly for those younger more vulnerable struggling with their identity, massively high rates of mental illness, self-harm and suicide.
In my opinion, a human right you have NO choice in, like your sexuality, should have precedence over a human right you do have choices in.
Note, Folau has illustrated how he has the ability to choose 'religion' in the past when he chose to no longer be a Mormon and then at a later date chose to become a member of the Assembly of God, a very different 'faith' and 'religion' than that of the Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) style.
To be fair, I don’t think Folau honestly believes he is being homophobic, I don’t believe he is actively trying to harm the LGBTIQ community or spread hate speech, I honestly think ‘he thinks’ he is trying to ‘save them’, along with all the other ‘sinners’. I truly believe that.
The problem is, his words go further than his intent. They are picked up on by homophobes and used to discriminate and cause harm in the way of hate speech which has real life ramifications on the vulnerable.
I guess Israel Folau – and others of his ilk – need to make some big choices.
If his God is so important to him, then maybe he should not even be fighting to hold onto his football career as to be blatantly hard core here, the man can only take the field to play the sport he loves due to the support, both as fans and financially from the Public and Business. How many fans would still be sitting on that couch or in the stands if you take away the ‘Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists and Idolaters’?
Maybe Israel Folau, if he wants to stick to his religious beliefs should just quietly walk away – as he said he would last year if his comments were causing harm - from Football and become a Preacher? As I’m not sure how his version of God would feel about him legally fighting for his ‘right’ to profit, yes profit off the ‘Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists and Idolaters’?
Anyhow, this is my essay on Israel Folau 😉
Would be interested in your thoughts. Though note, yelling at me ‘READ YOUR BIBLE’ is not exactly discourse, so don’t bother.
Professional desk jockey