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Why All Blacks' taking the moral high ground over Folau could backfire

Why All Blacks' taking the moral high ground over Folau could backfire
Sonny Bill Williams during the round two Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 23, 2018 in Dunedin, New Zealand.

All Blacks TJ Perenara has spoken – many would say admirably – about why he perceives Israel Folau’s comment around homosexuality as ‘harmful’.

He’s the first All Black to do so, and wherever you position yourself on the issue, there’s something rather refreshing in the modern era to hear a player talk earnestly and openly about a truly controversial topic. Especially given it’s an age where players are coached to say very little at all.

It would certainly have been easier for the scrumhalf to stay stum on the matter.

“I’d like to add my voice to the conversation currently taking place. As professional rugby players, whether we like it or not, we are role models for a lot of young people. Notably, young Maori and Pasifika people,” wrote the Hurricanes scrumhalf on Twiter. “You don’t need to look far to know that young Maori/PI are overrepresented in youth suicide statistics and, as I understand it, even more so when you look to those who are part of the Rainbow community. Comments that cause further harm cannot be tolerated.

“Let it go on record that I am 100 percent against the comments that were made by Israel. It was not ok to say that. It’s not an attitude I want to see in the game I love. There is no justification for such harmful comments.

“To anyone, young Maori/Pasifika people especially, who may be struggling with their identity – please know that it is ok to be you. You are perfect as you are. Do not let these comments keep you from being yourself. Polynesia has been sexually diverse since forever.”

There’s undoubtedly a certain amount of cognitive dissonance on the subject of religion and sexuality in Western society. The consensus appears – at least in the context of how Folau’s comments have been greeted – that holding such beliefs are permissible, but airing said beliefs in public; not so much.

At the very least, maybe the blunt and abrupt manner in which Folau capped up ‘HELL’ spoke to a certain fire and brimstone attitude to the subject; and of course Folau could have chosen not to respond – but he didn’t. Nor has he taken a backward step on his stance.

Keeping such beliefs to yourself – be it Folau or Perenara for that matter – goes right to the core of this issue, and it could present a moral dilemma. Many have pondered how David Pocock (an advocate for gay rights) views Folau position. The last time the subject came up in late 2017, Pocock suggested that they agreed to disagree and respect each other’s beliefs on the matter.

Yet it’s probably reasonable to assume that Perenara doesn’t have to look too far with the All Blacks team to find players who might harbour views not dissimilar to Folau’s.

Sonny Bill Williams – a devout Muslim – has pointedly gone out of his way display his religiosity. The hulking centre famously taped over two Investec logos on his Blues shirt last year, successfully arguing he had a right to do so as a conscientious objector.

“My objection to wearing clothing that markets banks, alcohol and gambling companies is central to my religious beliefs, and it is important to me to have been granted this exemption,” said Williams at the time.

While we don’t know the exact nature of his religious beliefs around homosexuality, it’s probably not an enormous leap to speculate that as a devout Muslim, his views might not be hugely dissimilar to that of Folau’s as a devout Christian.

What we can say is that he has already courted criticism for his friendship with Zimbabwean born Muslim cleric Mufti Ismail Menk.

Menk had been banned from speaking at a number of UK Universities and had at one stage described homosexuals as ‘filthy’ and suggested that they were lower than animals. The cleric has since retracted those remarks, saying they were based on a ‘misguided notion’.

In January 2017 Williams’ role as a BMW ambassador was questioned – according to Newsroom.co.nz – on the back of complaints about the player’s association with the controversial cleric. Menk – for his part – described Sonny Bill as a ‘wonderful person’ and someone who he knew at ‘close range’.

Currently, Williams is sidelined with a wrist injury and by his standards, is out of the usual full glare of the media.

Inevitably Williams will be asked for his take on Folau’s comments, and the answer he gives will be both fascinating and potentially hugely divisive.

Watch

Mils is back from Hong Kong this week and joins Scotty to talk Israel Folau, Tomás Lavanini, how the Sharks have figured out how to beat any kiwi team, and Mils the oracle gives you his winning picks for upcoming super rugby clashes.

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Why All Blacks' taking the moral high ground over Folau could backfire | Rugby Pass