The Israel Folau gay-marriage flap shows how far sport has come in Australasia

by Paul Thomas / 23 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Sport

Israel Folau: against gay marriage and homophobia. Photo/Getty Images

High-profile sports stars take a stand against racism and homophobia.

If the Respect and Responsibility Review was a timely reminder that rugby has promises to keep and miles to go before it sleeps, to paraphrase American poet Robert Frost, the Israel Folau gay-marriage flap shows how far sport in this part of the world has come in a relatively short time.

The biggest star in Australian rugby tweeted that he wouldn’t be supporting gay marriage in the postal plebiscite now under way across the Tasman. He did so in conciliatory terms – “I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions but personally I will not support gay marriage” – and he is on record as standing up for the gay community and against homophobia.

But his stance raised eyebrows because it bucked the trend of professional sport and sportspeople championing tolerance and diversity rather than acting as a roadblock to it. Virtually every major sporting body in Australia has declared its support for marriage equality. Folau’s Wallabies teammate David Pocock, who is on sabbatical, has vowed not to marry his partner until his gay friends have the same right.

It won’t come as a surprise to many readers to learn that tolerance is in somewhat shorter supply in American sport. Last year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit or kneel during pre-game renditions of the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality against people of colour. He received death threats, was called a “traitor” by an anonymous NFL executive and voted the most disliked player in American football.

As a Yahoo Sports columnist noted, Kaepernick was recently denounced by Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who, in 2013, offered a five-year contract to wide receiver Riley Cooper days after the latter was caught on video uttering a racial slur at a country music concert. (Cooper was, however, required to do four days of “sensitivity training”). Lurie also hired quarterback Michael Vick upon his release from jail after serving 21 months for his part in a dog-fighting ring.

Colin Kaepernick. Photo/Getty Images

Now Kaepernick is a quarterback without a team, as the result of an apparent, albeit unofficial, blacklisting. In the view of statistics website FiveThirtyEight, he’s obviously “being frozen out for his political opinions”.

Coincidentally, ESPN sports anchor Jemele Hill, an African-American woman, is under fire for tweeting that President Donald Trump is “the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime” and a “white supremacist”. ESPN has publicly rebuked Hill, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders has called for her dismissal and Trump is demanding an apology.

Given that Hill was born the year after Richard Nixon was forced out of the White House, her first assertion is hardly outlandish. The second is more contentious, but neither unprecedented – during the campaign, a number of commentators, including former George W Bush speech-writer David Frum, argued that Trump was running as the candidate of white America – nor, post-Charlottesville, indefensible.

Kaepernick’s fellow players are rallying to his defence. In the first week of the season, they voted him Most Valuable Player of the week for his charity work – he has given almost US$1 million to various charities in the past year – and more players and teams are following his lead of protesting by refusing to stand during the national anthem.

If recent history is any guide, they’ll have plenty to protest about. Last week, a white former St Louis policeman was acquitted of murder despite being recorded on the squad-car dashcam saying, “We’re going to kill this motherf---er”, during a high-speed pursuit. Within minutes he’d shot the black suspect five times. The judge described the apparently self-incriminating statement as “ambiguous”.

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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