Australian public opinion is split on Israel Folau’s controversial social media post that resulted in a code of conduct hearing for the Wallabies star. TOM DECENT reports.
Israel Folau is an amicable individual. He is polite, courteous and perhaps least importantly – depending which way you look at it – a precocious footballer with skills any sports fan would appreciate.
But the first sign Folau would not toe the party line became evident in September 2017 when he tweeted his opposition to same-sex marriage, which at the time was not legal in Australia.
It created a big enough storm because it differed from Rugby Australia’s official position but ultimately, after much public debate, it blew over.
On reflection, it was a pertinent reminder this is an immensely talented footballer whose beliefs won’t be compromised. Understanding the enigma that is Israel Folau is not an easy task.
Then on 2 April last year, Folau dropped another bombshell.
After posting a reasonably run-of-the-mill photo with religious connotations to Instagram, Folau was asked by a user named Mike Sephton-Poultney, believed to be a South African man, what God’s plan for gays was.
‘HELL,’ Folau replied, before adding: ‘Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God’.
Initially the reply didn’t gain much traction given it was deep in a comment thread but once a few shrewd Twitter users shared the remark, all hell broke loose.
RA was caught completely off guard and requested to speak to Folau. He and his management played hard-ball, questioning why he needed to front up. With the benefit of hindsight, many agree the organisation’s biggest mistake was not demanding their star player explain himself sooner.
No sanctions were handed down but formal warnings were issued. Folau gave his word to chief executive Raelene Castle there would be no repeat and she took that at face value, like most would. In her eyes, trust is there to begin with but it can quickly evaporate.
Castle has to be given credit for not only appeasing disgruntled sponsors but ensuring Folau, one of Australia’s greatest ever cross-code athletes, remained in rugby.
At one point Folau criticised Castle for misrepresenting him at a press conference but it was a calculated move from the former Canterbury Bulldogs boss who knew she had to put out grass fires on a number of fronts.
However, the ensuing four-year deal, worth an estimated A$4-million (R40-million), raised eyebrows. Its duration was a curious element but also for the fact that it later emerged there was no new social media clause inserted to prevent another similar controversy that could bring the game to its knees.
RA tried to have it added after Folau signed the dotted line but he refused. The reality was no one could have imagined what was to follow.
Being goaded into responding to a question about homosexuals is one thing but Folau’s post on 10 April was a calculated yet surprising headache RA was convinced had been left in 2018.
From Folau’s perspective, his words come from a place of love. He genuinely believes that is God’s plan for gays and he feels it is his job to warn people of their fate.
When Folau first stirred the pot on Instagram it took days for RA to react. This time around, a media release was issued within three hours.
‘The content within the post is unacceptable. It does not represent the values of the sport and is disrespectful to members of the rugby community.’
Shots were fired. RA was not going to accept Folau’s message, no matter if it was laced with protestations of religious freedom.
Folau was hauled into see his bosses and unlike 2018, he respected their wish.
Within days, word filtered out Folau was going to be issued an official breach notice but a plan had been put in place.
First up was Michael Cheika, the Wallabies coach and man who convinced Folau to come over to rugby from a mediocre stint in the AFL that followed a glittering period in rugby league.
‘I think as it stands right now … you wouldn’t be able to pick Israel,’ Cheika said at a packed press conference.
Lines were drawn. Then came national captain Michael Hooper minutes later, who was asked, very directly, whether he could play again with Folau.
‘In this current state and being here and talking about this as a rugby player, it makes it hard, it makes it difficult,’ Hooper said. ‘It’s frustrating that I have to stand here.’
With the three most influential figures in Australian rugby – Castle, Cheika and Hooper – making their viewpoints crystal clear, the hope was Folau would accept he’d done the wrong thing and leave the sport within saying boo.
That certainly wasn’t how it transpired. Once Folau signalled his intent to fight the ‘high-level breach’ of a code of conduct, the whole of Australia was essentially split.
There are Folau supporters who say he was not being deliberately hurtful and that he merely shared themes encapsulated in the Bible. They believe by punishing him, it sets a dangerous precedent where religious views can become muffled by an employer to fit their code of conduct.
Then there’s the others, who are adamant Folau’s words are nothing but hate speech and homophobic in tone given he could have picked out a number of other bible verses to post to his 350 000 Instagram followers.
Anyone who had an opinion expressed theirs in the weeks that followed but perhaps the most hard-hitting was that of Ian Roberts, a former Australian rugby league player who came out in 1997.
‘There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves,’ Roberts said. ‘It’s these types of comments and these types of off-the-cuff remarks when you have young people and vulnerable people who are dealing with their sexuality [that are] confused and not knowing how to deal with it.’
It is a complex issue and one that RA, an organisation that has had its issues in recent years – the axing of the Force in 2017 springs to mind – could not believe it was having to deal with.
Some have argued Castle should have inserted a social media clause to Folau’s new contract signed in late 2018 but the players’ collective bargaining agreement prevents any unfavourable new clauses being inserted.
One has to feel sorry for RA at a time like this. Rugby in Australia is hardly prospering and this latest setback could not come at a worse time when space in newspapers should be dedicated to rugby and not religion.
However, the worst news is this could drag on for months and even years if Folau’s team take this to the courts, as is expected. Arguments on both sides are robust and the magnitude of the situation is not being lost on anyone at heart of an issue dividing public opinion.
While Folau’s time in Australian rugby looks all but over, this is a watershed moment that will be analysed for decades to come.
Politeness aside, Folau is fighting for what he believes in and like many hapless opposition wings he has faced in years gone by, there is little anyone can do to stop him.
* Decent is a rugby reporter for the the Sydney Morning Herald. Follow him on Twitter @tomdecent.