No op­tion for Fo­lau but to go

Nelson Mail - - Opinion -

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.

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