Rugby Australia vs. Israel Folau; A fight that the game does not need
The recent social media posting by Wallabies star Israel Folau sermonizing most of us are hell-bound, pending our repentance, was an act of sheer stupidity that has left the 73-test match veteran’s professional sporting career in a precarious position.
His employer, Rugby Australia, only months ago retained Folau’s services by signing him to a four-year multi-million-dollar contract. They have now issued him with a Code of Conduct Breach Notice, the first step towards terminating his employment as a result of that social media post.
In her address to the media today, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle articulated that the disciplinary action taken by Rugby Australia was not religiously motivated, but one based upon the Code of Conduct and the relationship between Israel Folau and Rugby Australia.
“This is not a religious discussion this is a discussion around the employee-employer relationship and the values and contractual arrangements within that agreement. That’s the basis on which we’ve served him a breach notice,” Castle said.
That is the framework upon which Rugby Australia wants to fight its battle.
It is further reported by Fairfax that Folau did not have a clause in his new contract about his use of social media specifically yet Castle said that “Not within the contract, but there was a number of meetings, documented meetings, that were put … verbally and in writing to Israel about our expectations,” to which Castle stated that Folau agreed.
Why this was not specifically put into the new contract? Rugby Australia wanted Israel Folau to refrain from communicating in a way that would be disrespectful towards a person based upon their sexuality so why take notes about expectations, why not just put it in the new contract?
Perhaps placing such clear restrictions could be discriminatory towards Israel Folau as it was likely that any communication conducted would be through the vehicle of social media about his own religious beliefs that are clearly disrespectful towards homosexuals.
Perhaps placing such a clause in his contract would confirm something that is becoming quite apparent that religion is very much at the centre of this saga and the ability for an individual to express his religious beliefs despite his employment Code of Conduct differing.
This is not the framework that Rugby Australia wants to fight this battle.
It was reported in Stuff.co.nz that Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer Kamal Farouque agreed Folau could make a claim of alleged unlawful termination on the basis of his religion under the Fair Work Act. He said other arguments might also be made depending on the wording of his contract.
Furthermore, it would appear that if both Raelene Castle and Israel Folau agree on the facts as articulated by the Rugby Australia CEO, that may constitute a verbal contract. But would that verbal contract now be superseded by the current signed contract thus making the verbal contract void? A contract that does not appear to include the expectations expressed by Raelene Castle.
This matter is likely headed for the courts yet what is patently obvious is this saga is a fight that Rugby Australia simply does not need to be in.
This decision by Rugby Australia opens the door to the debate about religious freedoms, and the freedom of speech. In making their intentions clear Rugby Australia has now placed itself in its own precarious position, as since the time Noah took up boat building, humans have had differing thoughts and opinions on everything. Surely Rugby Australia are aware of that?
Yet now it appears Rugby Australia are saying certain thoughts and opinions can have you sacked. I was unaware Rugby Australia was turning into a politically correct gulag.
To be clear I am not for the manner in which Folau communicates his faith. To pick a particular Bible passage and publish it along with other material in the post was incredibly insensitive and stupid. A person of his public standing should know better, especially seeing that such behaviour has previously brought the ire of the Rugby Community.
Broadly speaking no person should not be sacked from a job based upon their individual moral or religious beliefs if it does not constitute a serious criminal offence. The game of Rugby has in the not too distant past has dealt with incidents that are in breach of Codes of Conduct that have not resulted in the sacking of the player involved.
Consider former English prop forward Joe Marler, who has had his own social media retorts to Israel Folau recently. Marler himself was involved in a culturally insensitive incident with Welsh prop Samson Lee. In 2016 during a match between England and Wales, Marler called Lee ‘Gypsy boy’, understood to be a derogatory term towards Welsh people.
A judicial committee later found Marler had used “unsporting and discriminatory language towards Lee” and he had, by his actions, “breached World Rugby Regulation 20 (which covers statements that are unsporting, insulting and/or discriminatory by reason of race or ethnic origin) and the code of conduct and brought the game into disrepute.” Marler was fined £20,000 and banned for two matches.
Closer to home, what about Folau’s Waratah and Wallaby teammate Kurtley Beale. In 2014 Beale was embroiled in a distasteful situation with Di Patston, a then-employee of the Australian Rugby Union. It is understood that the issue arose out of an image and a message sent via telecommunications.
Patston later told Fox Sports, “People don’t see that side of it. They don’t see there’s a level of feeling degraded, feeling like you’re worthless. And he actually admits to sending it twice.
“I’m not good. Life is probably the worst it has ever been. I’m alive but there have been times I haven’t wanted to be here.”
Beale was fined $45,000 by the Australian Rugby Union.
As insensitive as that particular social media post by Folau was, is it worse than the incidents concerning Joe Marler and Kurtley Beale? It would appear that Rugby Australia tends to believe so.
Has Rugby Australia considered what impact that may have on other persons of faith within the Australian Rugby Community? Particularly those of Polynesian heritage? Have they considered other persons of faith within the Wallabies themselves who overtly draw the cross of Christ on their wrist tape?
Rugby Australia would be aware that there are over a billion Christians on this planet and the Bible is a central part of the faith, yet by default in intending to sack Israel Folau, Rugby Australia is implying to other Christian players to not openly talk about aspects of their faith. They are in effect muzzling what contracted players can and can’t say about one of the most personal beliefs any person could have.
This is a fight Rugby Australia does not need to be in. Rugby Australia should not place itself as a judge of morality but perhaps use its role as an arbiter between the communities that make up the broader rugby community be it the LGBTI, conservative Christian or the over 45-year-old, tall storytelling, regular schooner drinking community to which I belong.
Rugby is a game that innately makes you more resilient as an individual but it is also a game that brings us together. I’m not sure if sacking Israel Folau would actually achieve the latter. It is an unenviable task Rugby Australia has ahead of them but they should act with prudence, compassion, and understanding.
As should have Israel Folau.
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