Israel Folau has exposed the tricky politics of professional sport

by Paul Thomas / 20 April, 2018
Israel Folau thanks his head coach after scoring a try: his wealth of options mean he’s hard to muzzle. Photo/Getty Images

Israel Folau thanks his head coach after scoring a try: his wealth of options mean he’s hard to muzzle. Photo/Getty Images

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Sports bodies’ policies against homophobia run head-on into the religious convictions of players like Israel Folau.

God, in Australian rugby star Israel Folau’s view, seems to be an eagle-eyed celestial referee. Far from being detached, even indifferent, God is paying close attention to what’s happening on Earth, and as a result, hell is filling up fast. Asked by one of his 337,000 Instagram followers what God has planned for gay people, Folau replied, “HELL … unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

It wasn’t the first time the devout Christian had expressed a view on the subject, although last September, he prefaced a statement of his opposition to gay marriage with “I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions”. But as is so often the case, there’s a catch. Notwithstanding Folau’s benevolence, the God he worships is the implacably judgemental version: hence unrepentant gays will burn in eternal hellfire.

This uproar caused by Folau’s remarks demonstrates yet again sport’s ability to raise issues that transcend whatever game is being played. There’s much more to this than a prominent sportsman – it’s almost always a man – putting his foot in it.

Not long ago, the various forms of football were bastions of social conservatism or, to put it less generously, revelled in their machismo and disdain for anything outside the mainstream. In the professional era, however, the codes must move with the times and adjust to changing mores: the blinkered old white heterosexual male support base isn’t broad enough to sustain grass-roots activity, development programmes and elite competitions involving highly paid athletes. The inclusion policy of Rugby Australia (RA) states that “there must be no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words, on and off the field, must reflect this”.

This is becoming standard: Auckland-born former league player Denny Solomona, who now plays union in and for England, was recently banned for four weeks for using homophobic slurs in a club match.

Denny Solomona. Photo/Getty Images

With the exception of making lucrative broadcasting deals, any major sport’s most pressing requirement is securing corporate sponsorship. But businesses are increasingly aware that the company they keep can affect the bottom line.

Australian airline Qantas pays to have its logo on the Wallaby jersey and for naming rights to the team, which the Australian media routinely refer to as “the Qantas Wallabies”. The airline’s chief executive, Alan Joyce, is openly gay and was a leading campaigner for gay marriage in last year’s referendum.

The controversy generated by Folau’s Instagram post also highlights the divide between the deeply religious, socially conservative Pasifika communities (an important source of talent for the oval-ball codes on both sides of the Tasman) and the secular, socially liberal milieu and marketplace in which the codes operate and compete.

RA’s boss, Australian-born New Zealander Raelene Castle, has the tricky task of upholding the organisation’s principles and keeping on side the sponsors, the media and the subset of rugby fans who care what Folau thinks, all the while retaining the services of Australian rugby’s highest-profile and, arguably, best player. Folau is off contract this year and, as a former league star who has also played Australian Rules at the top level, has plenty of options, especially given that NRL bosses have made it clear they see strategic value in luring him back to their code.

Like Sonny Bill Williams, Folau may be emboldened by his marketability to march to the beat of his own drum. (The theory doing the rounds in Australian football circles is that he isn’t too bothered about what RA says or does, because he’s already done a deal to return to league in 2019.)

Folau denies that and also disputed Castle’s positive summation of their clear-the-air meeting, claiming she’d mispresented his position “to appease other people”. Effectively taking the position that he has no choice in the matter – “I believe the Bible is the truth and sometimes the truth can be difficult to hear” – Folau seems prepared to walk away from Australian rugby rather than recant. (For the record: the biblical passage on which he bases his stance also consigns adulterers, slanderers and the covetous, among others, to damnation.)

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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