Israel Folau’s Instagram biography is succinct, and tells you a great deal about the man behind the account: ‘Living for Jesus Christ.’ The majority of his posts follow a similarly evangelical theme, expressing a strong faith that he shares with millions around the world. Not everybody carries the same set of beliefs, but there should be nothing inherently offensive about Folau’s feed, brimming with quotation of scripture and talk of “God’s plan.”
However, on 10 April, the Australian rugby union player posted an image directed at “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists [and] idolaters,” warning them (in block capitals of vivid orange) “Hell awaits you.” Though there has, as of yet, been no response from the lying and fornicating communities, Folau’s views on homosexuality have rightly been denounced as outdated and offensive.
More than that, Rugby Australia have terminated Folau’s contract, ruling their key player out of this year’s World Cup in Japan. As a former rugby league player, the thirty-year-old could have made the switch back to the Australian Rugby League, but that organisation’s chairman, Peter Beattie, has plainly stated that Folau will be banned from any of the division’s teams in future.
This is not new behaviour from Folau, who has publicly opposed gay marriage in the past, and who was last year condemned for remarks that gay people should go to Hell “unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.” In that instance, Rugby Australia distanced themselves from his views, but chose not to sanction their star fullback. A weak response perhaps, but at surface-level a sensible one. Minimum fuss, storm in a teacup, move on, sorted. Except the problem was not sorted. There must have been some understanding, whether implicit or explicit, between Folau and his employers, that he would not make a habit of sharing homophobic posts, regardless of whether they were motivated by his Christian faith. He failed to heed this instruction and, if the Australian rugby authorities are to be believed, ignored their attempts to contact him in the days following his latest outburst. At the time of writing, the post in question remains on his Instagram page.
The usual numpties have presented themselves, drunk with chatter of ‘free speech’ and Folau’s ‘human rights.’ He is the victim, they claim, of an Orwellian system intent on clamping down on anything deemed to constitute ‘thoughtcrime.’
Focused as they are on defending their hero, an athlete of undeniably brilliant talent, they are missing the point.
It ceases to be ‘thoughtcrime’ when the thought is posted to over 300,000 followers on social media. Moreover, Folau is not going to prison. He is not being strapped into an electric chair, nor being nailed to a cross. His human rights are not being infringed and he remains free to express his opinions, only he cannot be protected from their consequences.
Rugby Australia’s statement, released in the aftermath of Folau’s post makes clear that, “Whilst Israel is entitled to his religious beliefs, the way in which he has expressed these beliefs is inconsistent with the values of the sport.” He is referred to later in the text as a “Rugby Australia employee,” and this terminology should end any discussion about the justice of Folau’s sacking. Above all, he is a worker who has abused the terms of his contract.
Additionally, he is a sporting ambassador who has dragged his game into the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Even with prominent figures in rugby, like Gareth Thomas and referee Nigel Owens, coming out as gay, the sport remains unable to rid itself of connotations of hyper-masculinity and all too often, homophobia. Folau’s comments threaten to set rugby back several years in their quest to promote itself as an inclusive sport, but his paymasters should be commended for their swift, decisive response to the issue.
Rugby Australia may have less pure motives for terminating the player’s contract, with one eye on the maintenance of both reputation and sponsorship money. Their primary sponsor Qantas, whose CEO is openly gay, have already spoken out to condemn Folau and other donors could easily have followed suit. By doing what they failed to do last year when they let Folau’s offensive comments slide, the Australian rugby board have sent out a message that homophobia is no longer acceptable in the game, whilst acting in their own economic interest.
If one were to believe some of the judgement and conjecture surrounding him over the past few days, Israel Folau would appear to be quite possibly the worst man in the world, thrashing violently to the surface of a pungent and ever-deepening pool of autocrats and abductors. Yet I think this heavy handed critisicm is unfair. Israel Folau is a devoutly religious young man who interprets scripture too literally. He has stood by his comments and is unlikely to have his views on homosexuality swayed by public criticism. Though some would argue that there is no issue with him holding these views provided they remain a private matter, as soon as they are in the open, it is right that Folau cannot hide from the inevitably angry response he has received.
Folau cannot complain that he has been unjustly treated by Rugby Australia, but a witch-hunt will not help anybody. Nor should Billy Vunipola, the England player who defended Folau online, be dragged into proceedings. The UK’s Rugby Football Union have done the right thing in issuing him with a formal warning, but no more punishment should be given out. Vunipola was unwise to involve himself, but did so out of seemingly good intentions, to support his friend against what he saw as unfair attacks. This should, but probably will not, be the end of the case. There is no need to ruin Folau’s life over his religious belief, however misguided, but he should not be mistaken for an advocate of free speech. He has had his say, and it has come back to bite him.
Image: www.davidmolloyphotography.com via Flickr