Wrestling with the sacking of Israel Folau

High-profile Australian rugby player Israel Folau’s April 10 Instagram post is an example of the impact of our use of social media, and of the complex issues it raises.

Folau posted a passage from St Paul's biblical Letter to the Galatians (chapter 5 verses 19-21), along with a warning that hell awaits eight categories of people unless they repent. The conviction of Folau’s post is that Jesus loves them and desires their repentance. St Paul does not reference homosexuals in his list of “sins of the flesh”, but Folau’s post does, which causes immense offence to members of the LGBTQI community and many others.

Folau is a lay minister in his church and has been filmed preaching and baptising. His preaching, along with multiple Instagram posts, leaves little doubt that he, as an evangelical Christian with a literal understanding of the text, believes a whole lot of people will go to hell unless they repent. But he is also a national representative, contracted to Rugby Australia and the NSW Waratahs, and a sporting hero. But many people found his post to be unacceptable and some even referred to it as “hate-speech”

Rugby Australia determined he should show good cause why it shouldn’t terminate his multi-million dollar contract. After a code of conduct hearing his contract was terminated. Both parties then failed to reach a settlement at a Fair Work Commission conciliation, paving the way for a protracted Federal Court battle.

Important issues around the role and responsibility of professional sport stars, the relationship of sport to social policy, sport as a business, and the rights and limits of free speech all come into play in what is emerging as a significant case in Australian public life. Commentators have taken up his case and some voices have linked it to a perception of attacks on religious freedom. 

I remain conflicted about the sacking of Folau. I believe his case does raise questions around important issues in a society that values diversity and that promotes inclusivity and tolerance.

Highly paid sports stars are indeed role models, and to publicly propose that gay people risk going to hell because of their orientation has an impact on young people and their wellbeing and safety. A sporting star has clear responsibilities in this area to weigh the consequences of their words or actions. It is appropriate for governing sports bodies to enforce codes of conduct in this area and to insist on the responsibility of players.

But he is also a sportsman with a private life, and is a member of a small church. Should his employer have required of him to be silent on issues related to his faith? Is it discriminatory to require this on some issues but not on others? Should sports, and sportspeople, have public positions on social issues that don't directly relate to their sport, for example, officially endorsing same sex-marriage, as distinct from ensuring a lack of bigotry or hate speech within a sport?

Rugby Australia enjoys a virtual monopoly in terms of employment (playing rugby), and unlike other work contexts, Folau as a professional rugby player has limited choices. If he wishes to express himself he cannot simply look for another employer. This monopoly situation is relevant in what can or should be asked of a sportsperson. Selection for a sport to represent a country cannot be reduced to an employee relationship.

Is Rugby Australia heading dangerously towards imposing a religious or a political test for sporting selection? If a conservative Muslim player was to publicly support sharia law, would that disqualify them from representing Australia? If a Maronite Catholic player was to publicly affirm their opposition to same-sex marriage would that disqualify them from representing their country?

There is another factor here: how much influence should big sponsors have in determining policy? Qantas sponsorship is clearly an issue — they are the Qantas Wallabies after all — and Qantas chief Alan Joyce was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage. It seems Rugby Australia feels the pressure here.

As a Catholic priest I have a very different understanding to Folau about the redeeming love of God. Threatening hell has no place in my way of seeing faith. But as a member of the Assemblies of God, Folau has a much stronger belief in the likelihood of people going to hell.

In his post he named a whole lot of “sinners” as he saw it, and how he wished to help “save” them. I don't agree with his theology but it is hard to see in its intent, at least in a layperson's terms, as meeting the threshold of hate speech. His intent is repentance so that they can be saved.

I don't doubt for a moment many find these views hateful, but in a pluralist, multicultural society that cannot be, in itself, justification for silencing someone. I think his way of reading the Bible is dead wrong, but the Church learnt some time ago that it can't impose its understanding on other Christians.

Can Rugby Australia hold Folau to account for expressing a religious belief that is shared by many millions? As Darren Kane noted in the Sydney Morning Herald (“Rugby Australia treading on dangerous ground …”, 26 April 2019): “There is no distinction between a person's beliefs, and publishing material consistent with those beliefs, as much as the latter might be dressed up as a code-of-conduct issue.”

Is race also an issue in this case? More than 40 per cent of professional rugby players have Pacific Islander or Maori heritage, with many belonging to “fundamentalist” churches. As with all communities there are a range of views within Islander groups, and various judgments about the rights of Folau to express his views the way he did. But I sense a growing unease among this part of our multicultural society about the treatment of Folau.

The Folau case remains disputed and raises genuine and serious issues on both sides, but also highlights that intemperate language and polarisation in our society poses a challenge to debate in the public square.

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Chris Middleton Image
Chris Middleton

Fr Chris Middleton SJ is the Principal of St Aloysius College, Milsons Point, Sydney.

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