As his one-time Storm teammate Greg Inglis ends his career in a shower of tributes, Israel Folau seems to be ending his in a shower of a much more prosaic substance. And it’s a shame. A damn shame.
Many people have expressed a powerful certainty about what’s to be done with the troublesome Folau. I find it difficult to be as certain.
Seeing his latest foray into social media proselytising, I rolled my eyes and experienced a sudden, powerful sense of no-sympathy.
After all, he had been warned. He was subject to a code of conduct. He knew exactly what he was doing, surely, and could not be immune to the consequences of his deliberate flouting of his employer’s instructions.
So I found it hard to get on board with those who claimed it was an infringement of his religious freedom and that he had been, in Miranda Devine’s words, “sacked for being a Christian”.
It was hard to agree with those who said that a public figure like Folau, whose employment and remuneration is based at least in part on his agreement to publicise the game in a positive way, had no responsibility to temper his social media activity.
But then, I couldn’t entirely take the other side either. After all, just because a man is subject to a code of conduct doesn’t automatically make that code of conduct right – employers impose unreasonable conditions on employees all the time.
You could easily accept that Rugby Australia have the legal right to kick Folau to the kerb, without agreeing that they should.
Especially troublesome is the fact that Folau’s words – predicting Hell for gay people, but also for atheists, fornicators and all sorts of other ne’er-do-wells in the sight of God – would seem like fairly standard, uncontroversial theology to a large slice of Australia’s population.
The fact that Folau shares his beliefs with many of his fellow Australians doesn’t oblige Rugby Australia to accept them, but it does make you wonder if there may be a touch of hypocrisy in the speed with which we crucify an individual who spouts religious hate, while refusing to admit that his religious hate was caused by his religion.
Many have the courage to call Folau hateful, without being willing to call his church hateful. But the only reason Folau is hateful is that his church has made him so. It’s beyond time we all stopped pretending that bigoted individuals spring spontaneously into existence.
What’s more, Folau is not alone in the sporting world. Think how often a sportsperson will credit their faith with helping them achieve excellence: how many times does that faith also include a hefty dose of bigotry? A lot of footballers silently agree with every word Folau posted.
Of course, that’s the rub: if they’re out there (they are), they’re agreeing silently. If Folau had held his views silently, confining them to his private conscience and to chats with his fellow churchgoers, there’d be no problem.
RA objected not to him believing it, only to him saying it publicly. His religious freedom was not infringed, only his freedom to publicly vilify others.
But then, if your religion includes, as a requirement, preaching the Gospel, and if you genuinely believe some of your fellow humans are going to Hell, and that they can be spared that fate if only they repent… Well, how could you not try to warn them? How can you be said to have religious freedom if you aren’t allowed to exercise that part of your religion?
But then again, the contract. The code of conduct. The warning last year. He knew.
You can see, I hope, how a man might feel a little conflicted.
But there is one certainty, and it came into sharp relief with the press conference of Wallabies captain Michael Hooper and coach Michael Cheika.
Hooper was at pains not to say anything hurtful about anyone or inflame things any further. Cheika was, as usual, slightly baffling, saying a great many words to no particularly comprehensible effect.
But from both of them one impression was overwhelming: having Izzy back in the team would make things incredibly awkward for everyone.
And that’s where we get at the only verifiable truth about Israel Folau: everyone is sick of him, because he’s been a complete jerk.
Oh, he’s a well-meaning jerk. He doesn’t know he’s a jerk, and he sincerely believes that his jerkishness is providing a valuable service to humanity. He’s a jerk who is convinced beyond all persuasion that he is doing God’s work.
But a jerk who thinks he’s a hero is still a jerk – sometimes it makes it even worse. Regardless of his sincerity, Folau is still in possession of some awful beliefs, still posting idiotic assertions on Facebook and babbling on about Jesus like the kind of person you’d cross the road to avoid if you saw him shouting the same things on the street. In revealing himself as a jerk, Folau has hurt people, is hurting people, and will hurt people.
Anyone is free to be a jerk. It’s not against the law. Plenty of people have played out entire successful sporting careers as jerks, or worse, without resiling from those tendencies one bit. It’s certainly debatable whether being a jerk is grounds for dismissal.
But it’s not debatable whether Israel Folau is a jerk. He’s gone above and beyond to prove it without doubt.
The thing about being a jerk is, the longer you do it, the more you run the risk that the people around you will get jack of it. Because it’s irritating and hard to take for long periods.
Maybe Izzy thought he was so important to Australian rugby that nobody would be game to pull him up. Maybe he really doesn’t care, because being a jerk (that is, in his eyes, being a faithful servant of God) is more important to him than rugby anyway. Either way, the jerk chickens have come home to roost.
It’s a shame. A damn shame. But jerks gonna jerk. What can you do?