OPINION: Since early April, the ongoing saga of Israel Folau has dominated the airways.
For anyone who has somehow managed to avoid all forms of media in the last month, Folau took to Instagram shortly before Easter to issue a warning to all “sinners” that they were on track for hell.
Folau kindly provided an easy cheat sheet for the would-be damned to check whether eternal damnation lay in wait.
Folau’s post (along with most of the transgressions included) would have likely been laughed off by the general public if not for one inclusion: homosexuals.
It’s not hard to see why outrage arose. Gay men and women of the world have been persecuted throughout modern history and it’s only in the last few decades that relatively widespread acceptance has slowly started to become the norm.
For all the advances in society that have occurred, however, there are still a number of rights that the gay community do not have access to.
The poor treatment of gay people in the past (and, in many places, the present) means that the more socially progressive members of society are now hyper vigilant to any misguided views expressed about gay people today. We can’t make up for the past, but we can do our best to ensure a better future.
Of course, you can’t expect everyone to have the same opinions as you, and sometimes you have to accept that there will always be people that don’t think the same way. When a popular celebrity with an Instagram following of over 300 thousand followers suggests that gay people will go to hell, however, a line needs to be drawn in the sand.
At Folau’s Rugby Australia hearing an independent panel found him guilty of breaching his contract but there’s plenty more water to flow under the bridge before a final decision can be reached.
This isn’t Folau’s first transgression – last year he also made comments on social media indicating that gay people would end up in hell. RA warned him at the time that his post was not consistent with his employer’s inclusivity policy – not to mention the policies of many of Rugby Australia’s sponsors and funders. At the time, Folau said he would away from his contract if his position became untenable.
Whether or not you agree with Folau’s take on Christianity, Folau has now breached his contract and directly put Rugby Australia into disrepute.
It’s become painfully clear that there is no longer a place in the Australian rugby system for a player who believes that he can do whatever he wants without facing repercussion, which is why Folau’s contract will in all likelihood be terminated.
This isn’t the first time a player has breached their contract or acted in a way that is inconsistent with their employer’s beliefs, however, and we’re now left asking: where do we go from here?
In February 2017, ex-All Black Daniel Carter was found guilty of drink driving in France. He was well over the legal limit and was also speeding at the time. Carter was in his second year of his contract with French side Racing 92 having left New Zealand’s shores after helping the team secure the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
It’s hard to compare Carter’s transgression with Folau’s; one could have had a disastrous, immediate direct impact on a small number of lives whereas the other could potentially affect a much larger number of people, albeit indirectly.
Of course, Folau genuinely believes that he’s spreading a gospel that could prevent eternal damnation – however misguided that belief may be – whereas there are never any excuses for drink driving.
One of Carter’s sponsors, Land Rover, terminated their contract with New Zealand’s former golden boy after the incident but that was the only major punishment dished out. Carter was slapped with a farcically light fine (supposedly less than a quarter of what most people would be handed after a similar transgression) and no doubt there were some behind-the-scenes consequences that the wider public would never have been privy to. Carter was back on the field a month later.
The big difference between Carter’s case and Folau’s case is that Carter was quick to admit his guilt and accept his wrongdoing. Folau is yet to offer any sort of apology for what he’s posted and has stuck to his guns. Rugby Australia even made a peace offering to Folau, allowing him to keep playing if he removed his posts.
“There have been many opportunities to potentially make the situation a little bit easier. I could go back and play the game, get everything back to the way it used to be,” Folau said of the possible agreement.
“The way Satan works is he offers you stuff that could look good to the eye and makes you feel comfortable, and if you follow that path all the worries and troubles will go away.”
Evidently, Folau still very much thinks he is in the right.
Whether you think apologising for a mistake should significantly impact the type of punishment dished out will come down to your own judgements.
While Folau’s employers, his sponsors and the wider public have been quick to condemn his actions (and rightfully so), there was comparatively very little fallout for Carter. It’s estimated that Carter, with over 900 thousand followers, makes the most per Instagram post of any rugby player worldwide and today was also invested with the Queen’s Honours in New Zealand.
Carter isn’t the only case of a player being let off relatively scot-free for his misbehaviour.
Paddy Jackson has recently signed a high-paying contract with London Irish after spending a season with Perpignan in France. Jackson’s contract with old club Ulster was terminated after he was tried for rape. Jackson was found not-guilty of the crime, but private messages which were made public during the process did nothing for Jackson’s reputation, painting the Irish representative as callous and sexist. Given the toxic ‘lad culture’ often associated with rugby, it’s no surprise that Ulster and the IRFU were quick to end their relationship with Jackson.
There has been widespread outcry concerning his move to London Irish but, as a whole, there have been few professional consequences for Jackson. He was no doubt paid a lucrative amount for his time in France and RugbyPass sources have indicated that he could be earning close to half a million pounds a year with his new employer.
Only five years ago a different Wallabies fullback was involved in a scandal which probably should have been the end of his career – but now he’s being lined up as Folau’s likely replacement. Kurtley Beale was fined and stood down temporarily for sending crude and insensitive messages to the Wallabies’ then-business manager Di Patson. Like Jackson’s messages, Beale’s behaviour simply reinforced the perception of ‘lad culture’ in rugby – even at the highest level.
Folau is getting considerably harsher treatment than other plays have in the past and while it’s fair to say this his time with Rugby Australia should probably be coming to a close, you do have to wonder how others have managed to maintain long professional careers after making comparable transgressions.
It’s not just players that have avoided consequences that Folau will likely have to deal with in the future, however. The Wallaby’s initial post would have reached only his Instagram followers were it not for media outlets spreading it to the far reaches of the globe. No doubt many million more people have been exposed to Folau’s views because of the media. If Folau’s opinion could have such a negative impact on his followers, then surely the media are equally at fault for their part in spreading his gospel?
Alternatively, the somewhat ironic fact of the matter is that Folau’s social media activity may have actually benefitted the gay community. Sure, his initial post hit his 300 thousand followers, but think about how many players and public figures have come out and lambasted Folau for his post. The number of people reached by Folau’s opposers would collectively far outweigh the number who Folau may have hit in the first place.
That’s not to say that Folau shouldn’t have to face the consequences of his actions. His post was misguided at absolute best – there’s absolutely no room in rugby for the type of gospel that Folau wants to spread. Hopefully in the coming weeks the saga will come to a conclusion and the right outcome will be reached. Folau has been given too much airtime as it is – it’s time to get back to the rugby.
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