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Why everyone got it wrong about Rugby Australia and Israel Folau

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8th December, 2019
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If the flood of media reports and commentary that followed the mediated settlement of the Israel Folau versus Rugby Australia matter are to be believed, the outcome was a conclusive victory for Folau over his ex-employer, and a dagger blow for CEO Raelene Castle.

Janet Albrechtsen of The Australian led the charge: “They (Rugby Australia) lost on Wednesday. Big time. It was an old-fashioned shellacking not seen since the Wallabies lost to England in the World Cup quarter-final this year.”

Not content with that, she doubled down on Saturday, in a piece headed, “Woke hypocrites humiliated as Folaus bask in apology”.

The Daily Mail Australia described the outcome for Rugby Australia as “a humiliating backdown”, a sentiment repeated countless times on radio and television, and in print.

Queensland MP, Andrew Laming wrote; “Rugby settles with Folau. How much money destined for junior player development has been funnelled into go-away money in this sorry exercise?”

And let’s not forget Alan Jones, writing in The Australian; “Only an insensitive, incompetent and virtue-signalling outfit could have bought rugby to this point. And now they have to fork out more millions.”

Those clamouring to pass judgement against Rugby Australia and CEO Raelene Castle can be broadly classified into six groups:

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  1. Those seeking to affirm the right of religious free speech in Australia; including the Australian Christian lobby, various conservative politicians and individuals with deeply held religious convictions;
  2. Those with an existing anti-Rugby Australia agenda, including political opponents of Rugby Australia, those wishing to effect change at board and executive management level and disgruntled fans;
  3. Those who wanted a test case run through the courts with respect to the rights of an employer versus the rights of an employee, including politicians, lawyers, employer bodies and other sporting bodies;
  4. Those with a vested interest in rugby’s broadcast rights who are potentially advantaged by having the sport and its administration painted as being in a state of continual chaos;
  5. Those who supported Rugby Australia’s stand against Folau and applauded their stance on inclusiveness, but who now feel let down by Castle backing off and ‘bowing down’ to Folau;
  6. And a generally ill-informed commentariat, comprising talk-back radio hosts, TV commentators, general print and digital commentators, who are paid to provide opinions, regardless of their specific expertise on any particular topic.

Immediately following confirmation of settlement – with both sides stressing that the financial amount of the settlement would remain confidential – Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported Folau as being “vindicated after reaching a reported $8m settlement with Rugby Australia.”

And so that became the number: eight million dollars. Unconfirmed, highly speculative and vehemently refuted by Castle shortly afterwards; upon which commentator after commentator based their judgment.

Typically, commentators and newsreaders prefaced their messages acknowledging that the $8m figure was “unconfirmed” or “speculative”, but then still proceeded as if it was fact.

As such, what was evidenced was a perfect illustration of today’s media herd mentality, just as it was a sad reinforcement of the shallowness of a society that is not only fed, but tolerates, news no longer being made distinct from opinion, and vice versa.

The tabloid nature of the post-settlement reportage was also emphasized by an overwhelming focus on the amount of the financial settlement, with very little column space or air-time given to consideration of some of the broader issues.

For example, who remembers the flood of commentary about how Folau’s launching of legal action for $10m, later increased to $14m, was likely to bankrupt Rugby Australia? Where, over the last few days, has there been any review, analysis, or even acknowledgement, that Rugby Australia has not only not been bankrupted as a result of this dispute, it was never actually in any danger of being so?

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Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) head Martyn Iles was a busy man last Thursday, given free reign on multiple media outlets to herald Folau’s great triumph over Rugby Australia.

Neil Mitchell on Melbourne’s radio 3AW was one of those who interviewed Iles, but he neglected to ask him questions such as how does the ACL reconcile its support for Folau with his recent comments linking bushfires to the legalisation of same sex marriage? Or how does the ACL reconcile its support for Folau with the recent comments of his cousin Josiah, also member of the Folau family’s Truth of Jesus Christ Church, calling the Catholic church a “synagogue of Satan”, and Catholicism “masked devil worship”?

Instead, Mitchell asked Iles – who has no expertise in rugby – what was in store next for Folau as a rugby player. Unsurprisingly Iles failed to inform listeners that Folau remains sacked, has no prospect of playing professional rugby or rugby league in Australia, and very little prospect of playing in an overseas professional league.

Israel Folau

(Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Instead Iles was sent on his way to do the rounds of other friendly media outlets to add his organisation to the list of ‘winners’ over the hapless Rugby Australia.

So how can it be that all of these groups of people have it so wrong?

How is the Folau settlement a win for Rugby Australia, despite such overwhelming support for the counter view from so many varied sources?

The answer is simple. What binds all of these groups together is that their judgment is derived from their own standpoints. Their opinions are framed by how the settlement outcome affects them, their objectives or their image, and so their public comments are shaped accordingly.

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The two universal failures of all of those hailing Folau as victor over Rugby Australia are: first, accepting wild speculation as fact; and second, an inability to adopt the point of view of Rugby Australia who, after all, are the party actually involved and who, unlike everyone else, have real money at stake, and who are obliged to manage the matter for the betterment of their rugby constituency.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Andrew Webster provided an illustration of this when he wrote on Friday that “Once again Castle didn’t make the tough call of taking the matter to court. Even if Folau won, she’d have left with her head held high. If you start a fight like this, you have to finish it.”

If a commentator starts from a position of Rugby Australia starting the fight, when it was Folau who made the original post, it was Folau who breached undertakings not to continue to post certain material on social media, Folau who agreed to walk away if his actions were hurting the game, and Folau who initiated legal action against Rugby Australia, then the prospect of rational debate from that source is remote.

Webster again: “Some though are angry that Rugby Australia caved in. The settlement has now made it problematic for other codes and their social media policy for their athletes.”

Raelene Castle

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

This cuts to a fundamental point. Castle is charged with administering rugby. It is not her charter to run a test case on employment law for the future benefit of other sporting codes or the legal profession.

Webster, like so many others, is blind to Rugby Australia’s standpoint. It is they who were the subject of proceedings, risking their, and their insurer’s money. What some see as Rugby Australia’s abrogation of responsibility on behalf of other sports, or others see as cowardice to walk away from a court battle, (where they would have been liable for their own costs, even if they won), can more correctly be described as sensible pragmatism.

The truth is, Folau could have been any person, in any sport. He could have been the same person, making the same comments during his rugby league or AFL careers, and those administrations would have been faced with the same dilemmas faced by Rugby Australia. There is no evidence to suggest that either would have handled the matter differently – in fact, to the contrary.

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But Folau happened to be Rugby Australia’s problem, and the overriding challenge for Castle, heading into to the Christmas break and facing a media circus hearing in the new year, was to remove that problem, to find a way to take the issue out of the national media spotlight – for the benefit of rugby, not any other interest group.

This has been achieved. And it has been achieved without Rugby Australia apologising for terminating Folau, nor being required to reinstate him. Nor have they watered down their values with respect to rugby’s inclusiveness.

The actual costs incurred were a carefully worded apology with regard to “hurt or harm” suffered by Folau and his wife Maria over the period of dispute, and an amount of money, now said to be lower than what it would have cost Rugby Australia to run the case to its completion and win, and a lower figure than what the board authorised Castle to settle up to.

For that minimal impost, Rugby Australia now has clear disassociation from Folau. He is free to post on social media to his heart’s content on any issue he wishes, and be judged as an individual, not as an employee of Rugby Australia.

They also now have the matter off the TV news and the front pages of the newspapers. The benefit for rugby in Australia cannot be understated.

It does not mean that Castle is suddenly in calm seas. Negotiations for a new round of broadcast rights are ongoing; an inherently complex and challenging prospect at any time, let alone in an environment that is particularly challenging for all TV networks and any sport that doesn’t have the same domestic presence, scale and leverage of the AFL and NRL.

And despite optimism around the appointment of Dave Rennie and a strong team of support coaches for the Wallabies, there is no guarantee of a change in fortunes for rugby’s flagship side in 2020.

The NRC, conceived as a pathway for professional players into Super Rugby, is still struggling for traction due to under-funding and the stubborn refusal of key stakeholders in New South Wales to support it. If there are changes afoot that may potentially appease Sydney clubs but antagonise other states, Rugby Australia may yet find that they have only shifted the problem rather than solved it.

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There remain, too, forces in and around Australian rugby who are determined to hound chairman Cameron Clyne out of the game before the date of his signalled exit in April next year. Whether they succeed or not, the rancour exhibited remains an impediment to forward progress, and reinforces the perception that rugby in Australia is mired in perennial chaos.

Cameron Clyne

(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Nevertheless, these are challenges for the administration, not rugby’s death rattle. The game is in considerably better shape today than what it was a week ago.

Nothing will stop the partisan and ignorant from continuing to judge Rugby Australia unfavourably. It also seems, sadly, that nothing will stop those determined to bully Castle out of her job.

But anyone who stops for just a second, to genuinely ask themselves, “if I was in Rugby Australia’s shoes last week, what would I want to achieve and what would I have done to achieve it?”, there can only be one conclusion.

When rugby players and fans return in January, the topics for discussion will be the aches of pre-season training and the start of Super Rugby – not Israel Folau. Because of that, Rugby Australia and the game have walked away from this mediation as huge winners.