No option for Folau but to go
Israel Folau has to go. That much is clear. After that it gets a little messy. A year ago, after the Wallaby declared his strongly held belief that gays will go to hell, many people cut him some slack; we were conflicted by a person choosing to espouse such strong religious views in a society increasingly focused on diversity and harmony. How could one sit with the other, we asked. That debate continues.
In the end we agreed an unwritten contract with the sportsman: we know your beliefs and respect your convictions, but
please keep your extreme views to yourself.
His employer, Rugby Australia, put that down on paper. Folau signed a new four-year deal last year that reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid player (NZ$2.2 million a year, according to estimates from walesonline.co.uk).
The contract made it clear any ‘‘social media posts or commentary that is in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality will result in disciplinary action’’, says Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle.
Folau broke his contract with both public and employer in this week’s social media outburst. And his actions since – Rugby Australia was unable to contact either him or his agent for close to a day after the tweet landed to get an explanation – suggest the player either miscalculated the extent of the outrage, again, or knew exactly what he was doing.
Either way, he has left little room to move and, realistically, only one course of action: you may be the best player in green and gold but two strikes and you’re out.
Folau’s fall would have obvious implications for a Wallabies squad short of world-class players and six months out from the code’s biggest tournament. That is one for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika to sort out; no doubt after an earnest discussion with his boss, Castle.
For the rest of us, it gets a little complicated. It is tempting to resurrect and repolish past concerns about impacts on freedom of speech and the part played by sportspeople and celebrities. Especially in the aftermath of a horrendous crime that has affected both Australia and New Zealand, and given the ongoing debate about hate speech.
But Folau has so flagrantly abused any notion of duty of care towards his responsibilities as a public figure, and widened the scope of his scorn to practically everyone, that he has critically undermined the higher ground he so grandly claims.
Fornicators? Drunks? Atheists? Seriously.
Folau’s folly is another reminder any faith in the infallible propriety of sportspeople is misplaced. We worry about our young and vulnerable looking to such people for inspiration, but that should be a mark against wider society, rather than Folau and other miscreants.
Some commentators are concerned that a man being dismissed because of his strident religious views is a watershed moment in sidelining free speech and debate on uncomfortable topics.
In reality, we have merely created a higher waterline for how we expect people to live together and respect each other’s differences. And one man has again found himself some way below it.