Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle sat down with Iain Payten in an interview for RUGBY.com.au to discuss the details of Israel Folau’s contract termination on Friday.
Q: You have just announced that Israel’s contract has been terminated. You also said you have been saddened by the events of the last month or two. And others have said there are no real winners out of all this. Is that a fair statement?
A: Yeah, I think it is. It really is. For everyone. Both for Israel and the fact he won’t play rugby for the Wallabies again, for the fans that have had to live through a month of this speculation, for the teammates who have had to live with the fallout and for the rest of the Rugby Australia employees, I think it has been a really difficult time.
But at the end of the day, the values of Rugby Australia have to stand up and that’s for all employees, regardless of whether they’re players or whether they’re in the wider employee base. From our perspective, from Rugby Australia’s perspective, Israel breached those values when he put his views and expressed them in a way that is not respectful. Unfortunately, we had no other choice but to take the path of action that we did.
Q: Israel first said similar messages last year. Why was he not sacked at that point?
A: I am a great believer in that everyone needs a first chance. Don’t make the same mistake twice is probably the motto that I would use as a leader, and we had some very honest conversations with Israel around the time of his posting. He certainly lived through the media furore that happened over the first one. We had some very robust discussions around the grief that it caused Rugby Australia and some of our fanbase, and how offended they were.
In my mind I was very clear that Israel knew anything like this that was posted again was going to have a similar reaction.
Q: There has been some dispute about his interpretation of those conversations. Can you take us a little more into them – did you feel like you left him with a pretty clear picture of what right and wrong was, going forward?
A: I think specifically having used the words ‘hell’ and ‘gay’ and the homosexual community in the first post. We had specific conversations about the harm that it had caused the community. And the offence it has caused to that community.
To use those very same words again, to create that same issue with that same community is something I was very surprised about. Because it had been very clear from what I had said that we supported his strong religious views, in fact we were proud of his strong religious views, but that he needed to express those in a respectful way.
And he had done so since that post last year. He had been posting his very deep religious views in a really respectful way, and everyone was very comfortable with that. But unfortunately this last post was not that, and there were many people in our community who were offended by it.
Q: And Michael Cheika? Was he involved in similar conversations, in particular, about the impact on the Wallabies as a team?
A: Michael and I had separate conversations. I probably had three direct conversations with Israel in person, and I certainly had a couple of additional conversations with his manager about our expectations in signing a new contract, and where those expectations lay. Michael had conversations specifically in relation to the team.
So I am of the view, Rugby Australia is of the view, that Israel was very clear where the line was.
Q: Israel has been fairly strong all the way along that he wouldn’t compromise his faith. You guys entered into a new round of contract negotiations. With the benefit of hindsight, is there any regret, not seeing that there could be potential problems?
A: There is. From my point of view, there certainly is. But I probably would have had to have a really good crystal ball, and I didn’t have that.
What I had, was some conversations with Israel where I believed we were clear that he understood where the line was.
From where I sit, he signed a new contract and that contract had the same code of conduct in it, it had the same values, it had the same expectations set out. He also completed some significant training around what was offensive in certain communities.
So I believed that he understood what was respectful and was disrespectful.
Q: Can you clarify the contract side of things ? There has been talk that there were clauses attempted to be added on and so forth. Is that accurate? Or did you believe the code of conduct was a sufficient document to handle any future breaches?
A: We certainly believe the code of conduct is a baseline and is a good document that supports this. We would have also liked an additional clause that gave us extra protection, but the reality is this is a collective agreement, and you can’t add clauses that are to the detriment of the players.
You can add positive clauses; more money, more shoes, more cars. But you can’t add more clauses that are detrimental to the players unless you have the players association’s and also Israel Folau’s consent.
That consent was not given from the player, so that makes it very hard. Off the back of that conversation we agreed, and gave to Israel and his manager a second letter that made our expectations of his social media use clear.
And then I also sat down in person and had that very specific conversation with Israel about my expectations in relation to his new contract and in relation to the impact his 2018 postings had had. We explained to him we couldn’t have a situation like that again because the impact on the game was just far too great.
Q: On 9 April at around 6pm, Israel posted the now infamous Instagram message. Can you remember where you were and your reaction when you saw that?
A: When he posted the first message about the Tasmanian government’s view (on gender on birth certificates), I thought oh goodness me this is going to be interesting. Then when he posted the second post I knew we were in exactly the same territory we were 12 months ago. I immediately tried to get hold of Israel’s manager to get him to get hold of Israel and say: ‘What’s going on? What were you thinking?’.
That took us more than 24 hours. More like 36 hours to actually get hold of Israel. That put us in a really difficult situation. We knew the post was doing harm and was against the values of Rugby Australia; we had a similar situation to what we had 12 months ago and we needed to stand up. Rugby Australia needed to stand up and say ‘we have got values that we are prepared to stand by’. And we have a player that is not living by those values.
Q: You said right from the outset that you were seeking to terminate the contract. Why was it such a strong stance from the get-go, and why was it not a reference to a sanction and potential alternatives?
A: Because, having been through the first one where we sat down and were very mature on both sides, about approaching the 2018 posts and recognising that everyone deserves to make a mistake, and we can work through that and educate someone to make sure they can be better and make better choices around the language they used, we couldn’t guarantee that having had all those conversations – and he said he understood where the line was and still went ahead and posted – there were no guarantees he wouldn’t go and post again.
And they are harmful. I have had numerous – hundreds – of people contact me about the specifics of the harm, that it’s made them re-live how they found it very difficult to come out.
Parents of young children, saying: ‘I have a 15-year-old who really looks up to Israel and is struggling with his sexuality’.
Those things are really difficult to hear and make it very real. It’s not just the rugby community at a distance. It’s stories that you’re dealing with first-hand.
So it was causing harm, it was against our values and we believed it was a direct breach of contract and we had to seek termination.
Q: It’s a very divisive issue obviously and it’s been in the headlines. There are a group of people who say this is suppression of freedom of speech and suppression of religious freedom. What is your response on that topic?
A: This is a contract breach. Israel signed a contract, as all our professional players do that come under a professional players’ code of conduct. All of our employees sign a contract that signs up to our values, and the expectation is that you live by that contract. We support people with their differing views and their differing opinions, and differing religious stances that many of our players have across our game.
It is very clear that you are absolutely welcome to express your views, but you have to express them in a respectful way, and you have to express them in a way that doesn’t cause hurt and harm to our community. Or to a portion of our community. And if you’re going to do that, it’s going to cause an issue.
The reality is that if we weren’t talking about a professional footballer, if we were talking about a marketing manager, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That person would have just been terminated and they would have left the building.
That’s an important part of this conversation. Players sign big contracts, they’re ambassadors for our sport. Sponsors sign up because they want to use them as ambassadors. And they need to align with the values of Rugby Australia in a contract that signs up to our values, and the expectation is that you live by that contract.
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