“Rugby League has a strong history of inclusion, of breaking down barriers and of being a forward-thinking sport. I think that today more than any day that it is vitally important we reiterate that message.”
That was Wigan Warriors executive director Kris Radlinski, announcing the club is organising a Pride Day match for Round 8 of this Super League season – when the Warriors take on Israel Folau’s new club, Catalans Dragons.
Folau finally found himself a new employer overnight, Dragons announcing the signing of the former Wallaby on a one-year deal.
And while Wigan’s response, which will see them wear rainbow socks and shoelaces for the game, as well as organise a number of yet-to-be-confirmed promotions and activities around the match, was one of the more notable objections to the news, it’s gone down unsurprisingly poorly with the wider rugby league community.
Super League CEO Robert Elstone is dismayed his competition will now be home to a player who made more headlines for his comments condemning gay people to hell than his efforts on the field.
“Super League deplores the homophobic comments Israel Folau has made in the past, which squarely contradict our sport’s core values,” Elstone said.
“I have sought the opinion of informed voices connected to our game, and the majority share my disappointment that one of our clubs has chosen to sign him.
“There is a strong feeling that the decision to sign him lets down many people connected to our sport.
“I made Catalans Dragons aware of those views.”
However, Elstone conceded there was little Super League could do to prevent Folau’s signing.
“Super League does not have the authority to veto the registration of players and is satisfied by the due diligence carried out by the Rugby Football League.
“Israel Folau is a free agent, who has the right to work, and he has not been charged or found guilty of any criminal offence.
“Catalans Dragons has assured Super League that strict guidelines are in place to prevent the player from repeating his comments.
“They have also assured us that his contract will be terminated immediately should he do so.”
Wakefield Trinity prop Keegan Hirst, Super League’s first openly gay player, was also quick to speak out against Folau’s move to the Dragons, saying he was shocked and disappointed at the news.
“Our great game is tasked with fighting against homophobia and standing up for the values it puts such high stock in,” Hirst posted on Twitter.
“It shows none of the bravery, camaraderie or integrity RFL expects from its players, staff and fans.”
A statement from the RFL was similar to Elstone’s comments, condemning Folau’s comments while washing their hands of responsibility for his signing.
“The RFL places a high value on the sport’s reputation in prioritising inclusion and diversity – and deplores the player’s previous comments,” the statement read.
“However, the moral responsibility for deciding whether to sign a player sits with individual clubs.”
Catalans Dragons chairman Bernard Guasch also joined the chorus of those criticising Folau’s views while saying the club wanted to give the code-hopping player a “new opportunity”.
“We do not share or condone those views and we are totally committed to our club and our sport being open and welcoming to everyone,” Guasch said.
“We do not believe that those views should be publicly expressed, especially by a high-profile sportsperson.”
As for Folau, the player himself said he won’t be making any more comments about his beliefs.
“I acknowledge the views expressed by Super League and the Rugby Football League,” said Folau.
“I’m a proud Christian, my beliefs are personal, my intention is not to hurt anyone and I will not be making further public comment about them.”
Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia last May after a number of homophobic comments by Folau over the previous year. The governing body and Folau reached an out-of-court settlement after the player took his former employers to court following his sacking.