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Pro athletes and employer rights: The Folau saga from another angle

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Roar Rookie
27th June, 2019
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Did Israel Folau cross the line with his social media post or was he reasonably expressing his personal religious views?

There’s been no shortage of commentary from people who disagree with his views but support his right to voice them. Their argument is that no employer has the right to direct an individual employee as to what they can or cannot say in relation to spiritual matters. The suggestion is that this is a matter of freedom of speech.

But does the freedom of speech argument hold up?

A former boss of mine was a believer in the idea that too much is expected of professional athletes. His thinking was that pro athletes should not be required to be role models. Their job is to play sport as well as they can and that the measurement of their performance by any other criteria is unreasonable and unrealistic.

Israel Folau

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

I never bought this argument. Professional sport can only exist if the participants to at least some degree conform to values that the sport-watching public – that is, their customers – find admirable. If the punters perceive that pro athletes lack diligence, are lazy, cheat through drug taking or other means, do not respect the game or referees, do not work hard to achieve their skills or do not demonstrate courage and effort while competing, they would not turn up to enjoy the spectacle.

Athletes don’t have to be nice, but they do have to care about professionalism. In other words, professional athletes are not just paid to play sport; they are paid to behave in a sporting and professional manner. The job of a professional athlete is almost as much about presenting an acceptable sporting ethic as it is about playing well and winning. A professional athlete is not only an entertainer but an admirable character who upholds certain values.

How does the Folau debate about freedom of speech stack up against this definition of an acceptable professional athlete as one who upholds certain values as well as plays sport?

Some time ago Rugby AU and its subsidiaries decided that inclusiveness was an important central value that was critical to their sport and its customers and other stakeholders. Part of the rugby union product was inclusiveness. From that time onward any professional athlete who wanted to be paid to play under the Rugby AU banner has been expected to support that value, or at least not openly stand against it.

Israel Folau of the Wallabies evades a tackle

(Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

If an athlete’s religious views were opposed to this value, they could either choose to not sign an agreement with Rugby AU or choose to keep their views to themselves. If Rugby AU believes that inclusiveness is an important value that its athletes need to uphold in order to provide an acceptable product to customers, then it has a right to contractually oblige its employees to not publicly oppose that value.

Perhaps Rugby AU does not make the embrace of these values clear in its player agreements. If this is the case, then they may have a problem in their dispute with Folau.

If, on the other hand, the agreement is clear about a player’s obligations, then Rugby AU would argue that they cannot be expected to allow Folau to continue to present a product image that they believe is harmful to their business. Freedom of speech has little to do with the matter. Folau may present whatever views he likes but, in the eyes of Rugby AU, if his views are likely to damage his employer, then he needs to choose to play sport for someone else.

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If an athlete opposes a team’s stated values, why would they want to play for that team?

Should personal issues as gender, race, sexuality and religion come under this banner of sporting values that professional athletes should adhere to? The answer is not as clear as it is for issues like cheating, being lazy, lacking courage, not training hard enough or not trying to win.

On the other hand, if one accepts that language that vilifies homosexuals can be damaging to the physical health, mental health, careers, personal lives and relationships of gay men and women and their families and friends, it is not too great a stretch to argue that such language is potentially damaging to rugby players and rugby supporters – that is, customers and sponsors – and the sport in general.

It’s not unreasonable that Rugby AU should be allowed to expect its athletes to not openly oppose inclusiveness.


If Rugby AU have been as clear as they say they’ve been on their expectations that professional athletes will support their inclusiveness policy, one must wonder why any athlete who holds opposing beliefs and who is determined to oppose such values publicly would enter into such an agreement in the first place.

It seems odd to me. If you don’t agree with something, why would you sign it?