To truly understand the impact Israel Folau’s words have, you need to have lived through coming to terms with yourself and coming out in a sporting environment.
I will always maintain that sport is the most accepting environment I have found, and the perception of male athletes, in particular, is by and large incorrect and unwarranted. But, occasionally, someone like Israel comes along, and we can see all too well why the stereotype we often associate with footballers developed.
It does no one any good at all. Not the 99.9 per cent of fair-minded athletes and footballers out there, and certainly not the LGBT community or members of that community participating in sport.
When I came to terms with who I was, and then tried to figure out how on earth I would come out, I was heavily ensconced in this exact environment. I was part of a national team, playing handball, a sport that requires huge amounts of aggression day in and day out.
We toured together and lived out of each other’s pockets, and of course, this brought with it exactly what you would expect when close to 20 guys go away for a couple of weeks. All the swearing, homophobic, transphobic and often sexist jokes and comments you could imagine.
I’m not pretending to be holier than thou, I was definitely a part of it because that’s just what you did, but the homophobic and transphobic comments certainly made it much more nerve-racking and difficult to come out than it otherwise would have. This would be the same with any team you can think of; it’s not confined to handball or our group of guys.
But as much as I knew these were just comments made with absolutely no malice, by people who if you asked them certainly wouldn’t actually have any negative views towards the LGBT community, it made it bloody hard. I was terrified when I came out, not just because of that; coming out is a terrifying experience anyway, but it certainly didn’t make it easier.
I have to say the support I received from everyone involved in handball, especially with those I played with, was absolutely phenomenal. But imagine being a closeted player at the Waratahs or Wallabies right now.
If coming out wasn’t going to be incredibly difficult before, Izzy has now gone and made it almost impossible for any LGBT players to be who they are while playing there. How could you when your best player, someone who carries as much influence as he does, comes out posting the videos and making the comments he has in the past months?
But from a purely sporting perspective, the impact this could have on the field and for recruiting is potentially huge as well.
When I came out in 2015, I was in Qatar representing Australia and attempting to qualify for the Olympic Games. I was as close to useless as you could possibly be. Things had reached boiling point, I couldn’t concentrate on the court, I was getting into fights with teammates – all because I couldn’t be me.
We were essentially a player short, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that anyone else in the same situation – possibly with the Waratahs or Wallabies – would have the same reaction. A team won’t work if a member feels as though they need to hide who they are just to keep the status quo and fit in.
The other area it could affect is recruiting. Imagine for a second the Waratahs were in the market for a second rower or a centre and former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas was available. Do you really think, either prior to or after he came out as gay, that he would be signing with the Waratahs?
Absolutely no chance, and as a result, you would have been missing out on one of the best players in the world, a Test captain. No team in a professional environment can afford to have their possible pool of players reduced because of issues such as this.
It’s unfortunate because at the end of the day, when you take into account all of those scenarios, it’s the fans and members who ultimately lose out. If a player can’t play at their best because the environment they’re in doesn’t allow it, it affects the team’s performance.
The same goes with missing out on a gun recruit; it’s going to impact on results, because not only do you not have a great player, you have to play against them.
So while it may on the face of it seem as though Folau airing his views may seem like an issue around freedom of speech, in a professional or elite porting environment it can have a much, much more significant impact on not just the LGBT community, but the results on the field as well.