Israel Folau, a decent man, has been hounded out of rugby by his employer Rugby Australia for expressing his religious views publicly.
This pursuit of Folau by Rugby Australia, by the rugby media virtually to a man and a woman, and by a couple of sponsors of rugby represents a shameful and dangerous episode in the code’s history.
It is going to take years for rugby in Australia to re-establish its credentials as a code that accepts people of all beliefs and lifestyles.
On Friday a three-man panel appointed by Rugby Australia and the Rugby Union Players Association decided that Folau committed a high-level breach of the code of conduct over his social media posts, without publishing their reasons in any detail.
CEO Raelene Castle then justified her decision to terminate Folau’s playing contract on the grounds that she had “no choice but to pursue this course of action”.
Castle then went on to make this series of assertions in support of the Folau sacking.
I’ve communicated directly to the players to make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their rights to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened has changed that. But when we’re talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well.
When we say Rugby is a game for all, we mean it. People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background or sexuality.
This is plainly not correct.
According to Rugby Australia, a Christian Pacific Islander rugby representative is not allowed to publicly express his or her views – biblical views, actually – on sin and hell.
Given the experience of Israel Folau, it not safe for a player to express these views publicly.
In fact it is a sacking matter to express these religious views publicly.
The fact is also that the inclusiveness doctrine only applies to those who Rugby Australia decides are fit to be included.
Players are allowed, apparently, to express their views in private or in places like churches. But how long will it be before these places are included in the ban on social media and video?
No wonder the Pacific Islander Christian rugby community is seething about the high-handedness and duplicity of Rugby Australia.
Point 1.3 of the code of conduct for players says: “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability”.
Rugby Australia are the ones who have violated the code of conduct in respect to their treatment of Israel Folau.
Freedom of speech, according Raelene Castle, involves the freedom to say what Rugby Australia agrees with.
But it should involve the right to say things that Rugby Australia does not agree with.
Virtually everyone in the rugby community – outside of RA, the rugby media and a handful of players – knows that this is what should happen.
Rugby Australia should be a ‘broad church’ organisation. It should not take part in disputed social and political debates unless they directly affect the rugby game.
The fact of the matter is the majority of the Pacific Islander Christian community look up to Folau as an exemplar of proper behaviour, on and off the field.
For them, Folau is a Pacific Islander Christian who has been sacked for expressing traditional Christian beliefs.
How do we know this?
No Pacific Islander player has unambiguously criticised Folau for what he has said.
A number of them in fact have defied Rugby Australia and expressed their support for Folau.
On Friday night, before going into a Wallabies training camp at Brisbane, Wallabies props Allan Alaalatoa and Scott Sio made it clear, for instance, they supported Folau.
“Hated playing against you, but always loved playing with you,” Alaalatoa said. “You were another level toks! God bless you and the future he has for you and your family. Ofa atu (love you) brother.”
Scott Sio posted on Instagram: “Was privilege to have shared the field with you and against you.”
This was a very brave thing to do.
Michael Cheika has said that under no circumstances would he select Folau again for the Wallabies.
Despite this, players put at risk their Rugby World Cup places to support Folau in defiance of RA’s and Cheika’s hostility to Folau’s social media postings.
The irony with this is that of all the Wallabies over the last decade, Folau has been the most exemplary in terms of his behaviour, on and off the field.
He has not been involved in sex scandals. He doesn’t do drugs. He hasn’t passed around offensive photos of female officials working for the Wallabies. He hasn’t vomited on the main bar in the Paddington Inn Hotel. He hasn’t stolen things. He hasn’t been found drunk in his car. He hasn’t been silent when a coach was belted by a player. He hasn’t pleaded guilty to trespass of a farming property. He hasn’t abused and harassed referees and brought the Wallabies into disrepute as Michael Cheika has. He hasn’t broken contract promises to rugby officials in Western Australia.
What he has done is score a massive number of tries for the Waratahs and Wallabies.
He has been an inspiration for thousands of young and old Australians with his charisma and exemplary behaviour off the field and his talents on the field.
And he has been a poster boy and tremendous supporter of LGBT rugby in Australia and around the world.
His support for these causes is something that has been entirely overlooked as people have trashed his reputation.
Given Raelene Castle’s insistence that Folau has not acted in a respectful way on social media regarding gays, we should actually look at his record regarding homophobia.
On 16 August 2014 the Star Observer, Sydney’s iconic gay newspaper, which prides itself on “setting Australia’s LGBTI agenda since 1979”, published an article on the Bingham Cup titled ‘A Rugby Tournament To Tackle Homophobia’.
Heading the article was a photo of Adam Ashley-Cooper, an official ambassador for the Bingham Cup, an international tournament for gay rugby sides. Israel Folau was photographed with Ashley-Cooper.
The newspaper reported that the Bingham Cup organisers said “having Folau on board as a supporter was a coup, as he is regarded as one of Australia’s best sportsmen”.
A Bingham Cup spokesman told the Star Observer, “Israel is a strong advocate for ending all forms of discrimination in sport … He does a lot of work in that space with the other big name star who plays rugby league, Greg Inglis”.
Fast forward now to 12 June 2018 and a Star Observer article headed ‘Sydney Convicts Invite Israel Folau to Celebrate Bingham Cup Win’.
The important point to grasp here is that this article appeared after Folau’s first social media posting, as the report noted.
The Convicts (Sydney’s gay rugby team) have extended an invitation to their Australian rugby allies to join them in celebrating the Bingham Cup victory, including Israel Folau’s team the Wallabies… Star fullback Folau, often called Australia’s best rugby player, has stirred controversy with a series of social media messages since last year, notably an Instagram post declaring that gay people were destined for hell if they did not ‘repent’. Folau, who once appeared on the cover of the Bingham Cup, has since said that he is not homophobic.
It is clear from all of this that Folau is practising the Christian doctrine of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ with social media posts.
Nick Farr-Jones, a former Wallabies captain, a great leader on and off the field and a passionate Christian, explained all this in an important interview with Sky News this month.
This is a train wreck … What this is causing, vis-a-vis a divide among fans amongst just the game in general, the other sports must be laughing at us… From Israel’s perspective he has done nothing wrong. He believes that he’s put those posts out in love to people if only they’ll listen.
This interview was barely reported by the rugby media.
For the rugby media, it was the views of Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas, that are of prime consideration.
Joyce has done a sponsorship deal with Rugby Australia that involves the national side being branded as the Qantas Wallabies.
Joyce is a passionate advocate for gay rights. He uses his influence as the CEO of Qantas to advance LGBT rights.
The Australian Financial Review reported that he was “quite happy” that Folau was sacked. “They (Rugby Australia) have to manage it … and shame on you if it happens a second time. That’s the way we approach it in the aviation industry, and we expect organisations to be the same,” he said.
When I say that the rugby media has been too one-sided in this matter, I mean that there has been no scrutiny of Alan Joyce’s hypocritical approach on this matter.
Let me explain.
In March 2010 Qantas announced that it had entered a code-sharing partnership with Etihad Airlines.
These codeshares operate on Etihad services between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and Abu Dhabi.
This arrangement involves Etihad staff working in Australia alongside Qantas workers.
Just bear that in mind when you read the following extracts from an article published on 24 August 2017 in The Hill written by Joe Solmonese, a former president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Gulf carriers like Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways are consistently hostile towards the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender community. The LGBT community is barred from employment of any kind at these three companies.
All of us should reconsider our relationships with these Gulf carriers … If we do our part and flex our collective muscle, we can hold these discriminatory airlines – and the organisations that support them – accountable.
If these countries want to compete for American business, they should meet our country’s values of inclusion and diversity.
For ‘American business’, we should read in the context of the Israel Folau case ‘Australian business’.
This is how I deconstruct what Joe Solmonese says in the context of the Israel Folau case, Qantas and Rugby Australia.
Alan Joyce has put a significant amount of Qantas money into sponsoring the Qantas Wallabies brand.
It would seem reasonably obvious that he has told Raelene Castle that this sponsorship money is at risk if Folau is not stopped publishing his biblical views on gays on social media.
Castle put in a process that ensured that Folau would be sacked for his social media tweets, even though there was nothing in his contract relating to his use of social media.
Castle justified her action on the grounds Folau posted a second time after promising – she says he did, but he denies – that he wouldn’t post again.
“The post was doing harm,” she claimed. “We needed to stand up.”
We should remember is this context that Australia helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, of which Article 19 states the following.
Everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Alan Joyce and presumably Raelene Castle is “quite happy” that Israel Folau has lost his employment as a rugby player for exercising his right to freedom of opinion.
Alan Joyce is also presumably quite happy to be in partnership with a company in Australia – Etihad – that refuses to employ gay people.
All this raises these questions.
Why does Qantas have a partnership with a company that will not employ gay people, even in Australia?
Why, if Raelene Castle is so concerned about the disputed effect of Folau’s words on young people, is she not concerned at all about Qantas tolerating real discrimination against gay people from an airline partner?
Should Rugby Australia now reconsider allowing Qantas to embrace the Qantas Wallabies brand considering that it is in partnership with a company that is homophobic?
Should Qantas, too, give up its partnership with Etihad in the interests of defending the diversity principle in Australia?
Is it time to Qantas to stand up to Etihad for its policy of not employing gay people?
Is it time too for Rugby Australia to stand up to Qantas for its support of a company that has homophobic work hiring practices?
Why are Qantas and Rugby Australia so hostile to Israel Folau, a person who the gay community once acknowledged as a supporter?
As Nick Farr-Jones says, the Israel Folau case is a train wreck for Rugby Australia.
There is the possibility that the case could bankrupt the rugby game in Australia, morally and financially.
Rugby could be facing its end of days in Australia.