Australian rugby star Israel Folau has been dismissed by Rugby Australia following a homophobic post on Instagram. This ongoing saga has brought much-needed reflection to the often-murky tension between religious freedom, free speech, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual identity.
The former NSW Waratahs and Wallabies player stated on social media that “hell awaits… drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters”. Such an extreme Christian view stated publicly was considered to be a “high-level breach” of Rugby Australia’s code of conduct and thus his A$4m contract was terminated.
Folau has since shown little remorse for his actions, instead re-affirming that his religious beliefs will always come before rugby. “As Australians, we are born with certain rights, including the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of expression,” he said. “The Christian faith has always been a part of my life and I believe it is my duty as a Christian to share God’s word.” While Folau will insist his religious beliefs should not impact on his ability to play rugby, the Chief Executive of Rugby Australia, Raelene Castle, takes a different view, issuing the following statement to a press conference: “Rugby Australia did not choose to be in this situation, but Rugby Australia’s position remains that Israel, through his actions, left us with no choice but to pursue this course of action.”
Castle also described the saga as an “unwanted distraction” from the Wallabies’ World Cup preparations, while Rugby Australia chairman Cameron Clyde cited pressure from powerful sponsors as a factor in Folau’s dismissal. The focus of this debate, however, should not be on its implications for the Wallabies’ chances at this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, or on Folau’s future playing career; but instead on the damage his comments pose to the LGBT+ community.
Folau’s public vilification of the LGBT+ community to his 365,000-strong Instagram following and the thousands more exposed to his homophobic comments through the media makes the LGBT+ community more vulnerable to homophobia and, in turn, mental health issues and suicide. According to the LGBTI National Health Alliance, those aged 16-27 and identifying as LGBTI are five times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Folau’s comments are not healthy for the many young, fragile, impressionable LGBT+ rugby fans, who, at such a young age, place trust and admiration in household sport names such as Folau. Homophobic comments from a supposed role model risks discouraging young people from expressing their identity and, even more tragically, could contribute to poor mental health and suicide.
The current dispute is not the first time Folau’s religious expression has garnered criticism. He has made similar homophobic comments on public platforms in the past. He publicly expressed his distaste with Australia’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage in 2017 and he supplemented this with further homophobic comments in 2018. On these occasions Folau was not sanctioned by Rugby Australia. This time, however, the expression of his Christian views has led to the termination of his employment with Rugby Australia.
Ultimately, sport should have a healthy contribution to society. Folau’s dismissal was necessary to show that Rugby Australia stands in solidarity with the LGBT+ community and does not tolerate homophobic behaviour. This message would have been empty if Folau was merely given a fine or short suspension. Hopefully this ongoing saga will provide the impetus for a more widespread crackdown on homophobia and transphobia in Australian sport and motivate sporting authorities to provide more clarity on what athletes can and can’t say publicly.
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